By Fiona Nugent, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

In an optimistic take on Cambridge University’s widening participation practice, I unpack how some of the most promising strides to date were unwittingly made by Cambridge during the COVID-19 pandemic and the lesson that should be taken away from this in order to champion inclusion as part of our ‘new normal’.

Although now it feels almost inconceivable, it was only seven months ago when we were living in BC (before COVID-19) and the bricks-and-mortar institution was an unnegotiated aspect of higher education. In the past decade, the emergence of online universities, specifically Massive Online Open Courses, has sparked debate surrounding the possibility of digitalised, distance learning, with some institutions developing online teaching platforms as an affordable and accessible higher education alternative. However, these never particularly gained momentum with a 2014 article asserting that:

The nuanced intellectual interaction of student and teacher in a shared physical space, stimulated by reading and expressed in voice or writing, is the motif of a higher education. Today, the Oxbridge model of small group tutoring remains the gold standard for higher education, reflecting the importance of proximity and dialogue in the scholarly relationship.

Hackley, C. (2014). Does the age of online education herald the death of academics? The Conversation.

The ‘Oxbridge model’, regarded by the article as gold standard, demands full-time residency within the bricks-and-mortar institution. Until now, this has been an obstinate feature of Cambridge University’s undergraduate courses where it is mandatory for students to reside within a close radius of the university for, at minimum, the duration of the course, none of which are offered part-time. This reflects ‘traditional’ higher education; learning that is available within the boundaries of bricks-and-mortar, educational resources housed within the physical space of the library and timetables structured around the schedule of the institution. In contrast, distance teaching institutions such as the Open University, who are committed to ‘being open to people, places, methods and ideas’, operate outside of physical institutional boundaries, allowing greater flexibility for when, where and how students learn (Lane, 2008).

As an MPhil student, I explored the aptness of Cambridge’s widening participation practice. A domain that in recent years, has received significant criticism due to the institution’s disproportionate intake, where students from the most advantaged social backgrounds tend to be overrepresented. In this field, the rigidity of traditional higher education has been challenged, in favour of the Open University’s transformational approach to a system that has historically, and indeed continues to, exclude underrepresented groups. However, this notion has been widely disregarded by those who like Hackley (2014), mark the Oxbridge model as gold standard, dismissing alternative models embracing learning outside of the physical institutional space as nothing more than a development in the commodification of knowledge. Subsequently, whilst the Open University has rewritten the rules of higher education in their mission to widen participation, Cambridge’s approach has primarily focussed on teaching the rules through embracing activity that has no impact on traditional practice. For example, offering underrepresented students taster experiences and preparation to improve their chances of entry.

However, this position is ignorant to the benefits digitalised, distance learning can have on improving access to higher education, since it offers the opportunity to study from anywhere, at any time, which is particularly advantageous to a number of groups including students with learning difficulties and disabilities, students with family or work commitments and students who are geographically mobile (for instance the armed forces). As such, whilst the Open University has been widely praised for enabling access to individuals otherwise unable to participate (Lane, 2008), Cambridge’s efforts have contributed to comparably negligible progress, perhaps due to the stipulation for physical institutional boundaries in the delivery of gold standard education.

Photo by Edward Jenner on

This was until COVID-19 necessitated distance learning in gold standard education. Cambridge did not ground to a halt but rather embraced digitalisation as the higher education sector adapted to unprecedented circumstances. Of course, it cannot be insinuated that this transition was without fault, nor am I implying that distance learning is the long-term solution to aiding inclusion. Higher education without bricks-and-mortar has not been deemed favourable, as following drastic changes to teaching and learning, 15,746 UK higher education students, including myself, challenged universities’ ability to instate the full tuition fee (Barrie, 2020). Thus, it could be argued that embracing digitalisation is simply a development in the commodification of knowledge, as the marketisation of higher education means that universities financially dependent on student fees have had to deliver learning online to retain students, regardless of whether this substitutes an engaging and fulfilling educational experience. Further, distance learning does not absolve social inequality, as access to internet, learning resources, adequate study spaces and other facets required to aid effective study are often dependent on socioeconomic status.

Nonetheless, what COVID-19 has revealed, from what was hidden beneath their necessity to maintain tradition and academic rigour, is Cambridge’s compassion for those facing circumstances that prevent participation in conventional learning, and subsequently not only their desire, but ability to implement various provisions that account for the spectrum of ways students have been impacted by the ongoing pandemic. In the early stages, Cambridge’s decision for exam timetables to be made flexible to account for time zones, caring responsibilities and illness was not driven by what was once the established ‘motif’ for higher education, but rather by their commitment to support students who found themselves in circumstances that prevented learning. This sentiment can be observed in other domains too. Following the Government’s controversial standardisation process to award A-Level grades to those unable to sit exams due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cambridge made the decision to admit a larger cohort, to account for the widened attainment gap between the most and least advantaged students. This provision meant that a record number of students from underrepresented groups gained a place at Cambridge, establishing this year’s intake as their most diverse to date (Dorrell, 2020).

Regardless of whether it is intentional, Cambridge is finally making some of their most encouraging strides toward inclusion by demonstrating their ability to implement far-reaching change to ensure that all students have reasonable access to teaching and learning in the face of extraordinary circumstances. As the pandemic continues to develop, the higher education sector will undoubtedly be confronted by a plethora of unprecedented challenges, continuing to require revolutionary approaches to domains once considered unnegotiable. I urge Cambridge not to perceive transformation as a temporary response to COVID-19, but rather envision what gold standard education, once notorious for exclusion, will look like in the institution’s ‘new normal’, which has so far been promising in the development of widening participation.


Barrie, D. (2020). Refund university rent and tuition fees due to coronavirus. Petitions: UK Government and Parliament. Retrieved from

Dorrell, C. (2020, September 3). University welcomes a record number of undergraduates for 2020/21. Varsity. Retrieved from

Hackley, C. (2014). Does the age of online education herald the death of academics? The Conversation. Retrieved from, A. (2008). Widening Participation in Education through Open Educational Resources. In T. Iiyoshi and M.S.V. Kumar (Eds.), Opening up education (p. 149-164). London: The MIT Press.

Fiona recently completed an MPhil in ‘Educational Research’ at the Faculty of Education. Her broad area of interest was within widening participation practice at the University of Cambridge. Specifically, Fiona’s dissertation explored the aptness of financial support for working-class students in the absence of considerations for cultural factors that can hinder or prevent participation.
Find her on Twitter: @FionaNugent_

Posted by:fersacambridge

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