20 Years of Access at Cambridge

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A photo of Neve with text next to her saying 'An Update from Neve: 20 Years of Access at Cambridge!'

This year marks 20 years since the first CUSU Access Officer! Contrary to popular belief, the SU is no longer called CUSU, so whilst it’s only been three years of AEPs at Cambridge SU, this is a big anniversary for access in Cambridge. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the landscape of access work then and now, and chart what has changed but also what has stayed the same.

Access at Cambridge began as an SU campaign, with over 5000 students voting to create a sabbatical position of Access Officer back in the early 2000s. It had been acknowledged as one of the biggest issues facing Cambridge at the time, and it was kind of revolutionary that Cambridge students had voted to create an access sabbatical officer- we’re still one of very few SUs in the country to have access sabbs! The 2002 CUSU Freshers’ Guide includes an entry from the then-first Access Officer, Rachel Tripp, which discusses how the ‘access campaign’ would interact with the new ‘Black Student’s Campaign’ and the ‘Women’s Union’, two organisations which have become the BME Campaign and WomCam, each headed up by their own sabbs. At the time, viewing access work as campaign work was necessary; universities were only just beginning to understand the depth of the problem, and widening participation wasn’t really a priority for anyone. Now, access and outreach work are embedded in the strategy of both the SU and the University, and the Office for Students has categorised not doing this work as a risk to higher education institutions.

Access work is less campaign-focused, and more of a central facet of day-to-day life at the SU and the University. Cambridge SU has a full access team, led by two sabbatical officers, which runs the Shadowing Scheme and is looking to branch out, especially into postgraduate access. We’ve seen a pandemic, a shift in focus to online outreach work and the core beliefs that started this campaign work are far less radical in 2022. But it’s important to remember the roots of our campaigning work. Access is a fundamentally radical ideology. Its aim is to open closed spaces to people who have always been shut out. Our remit has expanded since 2002, and the creation of the Class Act Campaign highlights how access is not just about getting in, but also about getting on. My job title (Access, Education and Participation) also reflects this, as well as the fact that we have both undergrad and postgrad AEPs. But the fundamental belief that Cambridge should be accessible to everyone that wants to be here remains the same, and a large part of the SU’s campaigning work taps into this ideology.

In part, that’s why I’m so attached to the Shadowing Scheme. The Scheme is almost the same age as the Access sabb role, and founded on the same campaigning principles as that position. Outreach isn’t the same as recruitment, and this is probably where some of our motivations differ from HE institutions. All of the SU’s access work is built upon the principle of demystifcation and informing. So get involved! 

Happy 20 years to the CUSU Access Officer role- I look forward to seeing what happens in the next 20.

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