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'Local actors with local solutions': a conversation with Sulaiman Iqbal

Third-year student Sulaiman Iqbal is the founder of Team UPside, a youth-led community organisation which works to widen access to higher education for less-advantaged students.

We spoke to Sulaiman about what he sees as the biggest barriers to higher education, and how Team UPside has leveraged social media to expand their initiatives during the pandemic.

What is Team UPside, and what are its aims?

Team UPside is a youth-led community organisation based in Ealing, West London. We support young people from socio-economically disadvantaged areas of the UK by addressing three structural gaps in society - information, opportunity, and mentorship gaps. We attempt to address these problems at a grassroots level by organising local community projects, creating online educational content, and delivering school workshops.

Team UPside’s work is based on one key principle: local problems are most effectively addressed by local actors with local solutions. Our vision is to facilitate the creation of a network of youth-led organisations across the UK that empower young people in their local communities.

When did Team UPside start, and how far has it expanded since then?

Team UPside started in August 2019 as a small-scale community initiative, providing free education and careers advice to young people from the local area of Southall, West London. We’ve expanded into a 7-person committee, and have built a social media following of over 1500 people across all platforms and a mailing list of over 500 young people.

During the pandemic, Team UPside launched 5 flagship digital initiatives to support young people’s learning through the pandemic (including a podcast, book club and an ‘Inspiration from History’ series). In September 2020, we created 14 personal statement advice videos for less-privileged students applying to university. We also delivered an online workshop about how to prepare for A-Levels to 200 students at a sixth-form college in West London.

One of Team UPside’s biggest projects is our Oxbridge Mock Interview Day initiative, which ran twice in both 2019 and 2020. This academic year, Team UPside (in collaboration with another social initiative called in2_law) organised over 180 mock interviews for students with interview offers at Oxbridge from access backgrounds – a 300% increase on the year before.

Team UPside’s flagship project this year has been our online community school initiative. Every Saturday from 10am - 12pm, Team UPside volunteers provide free online GCSE and A-Level tuition to young people from the Ealing community. This helps to address the educational gap that widens each day that this pandemic continues. 

What do you see as the biggest barriers to higher education right now?

Team UPside view information gaps, opportunity gaps, and mentorship gaps as the three principal structural barriers to higher education for young people from less-advantaged backgrounds.

Higher education institutions need to ensure that all young people have access to high-quality information about the diverse range of courses that universities offer, the variety of employment opportunities that these courses open up, and the entry requirements for gaining acceptance onto these courses. These details are (in large part) available online, but need to be targeted towards young people and parents who are less familiar with the system of higher education in the UK.

For a young person who would be the first in their family to attend a UK university, is eligible for free school meals or attends a school with lower average attainment levels, opportunities to explore diverse subjects and gain relevant experiences are not readily available. More privileged peers are, from an early age, able to go on trips abroad, discuss current affairs and be intellectually challenged around the dinner table. Disadvantaged youth face financial concerns, responsibilities at home, parents with less insight into higher education and thus, less opportunity to build core skills prized in the university application process.

Mentorship is a critical source of insight and confidence for aspiring students. It offers immense benefits, particularly for those without close relatives who went to university, or work in specific professions. The direct benefits of mentorship include obtaining useful resources and constructive feedback on applications. Furthermore, knowing that someone whose journey you aspire to recreate is committed to your success, and willing to devote time and attention accordingly, is invaluable in inspiring self-confidence within any mentee.

How does Team UPside stand out from other Oxbridge outreach programmes?    

Team UPside is unique because of our local community approach to addressing social inequality. At its core, Team UPside is a community organisation with a long-term goal of providing local communities across the country with the tools and training to support young people within their community. We hope to contribute towards creating a sustainable model for youth development and community cohesion in Britain and elsewhere around the world.   

How important do you think it is to continue widening participation work once students get to Cambridge?

It is important to continue widening participation once students get to Cambridge through policies that work to create an inclusive environment – especially for students from minority backgrounds. Making sure that students from all backgrounds feel like they belong, and are valuable members of the university community, is key to creating a flourishing student environment for all.

What have been the challenges (and benefits) of outreach work going online over the past year?

The biggest challenge Team UPside has faced due to outreach work going online has been the task of forming close relationships with new young people that we work with. It is a lot easier to build close connections and ascertain how impactful your work is in person, in qualitative as well as quantitative ways.

Without a doubt, the biggest benefit of going online has been the increase in scale that you are able to gain by leveraging tools and platforms like Zoom and Instagram, increasing the number of people that you can reach and help.

What is the single most effective change that the University could make right now to widen access to higher education?

One of the most effective policies the University could implement immediately to support widening participation is to invest in student-run outreach programmes with financial support and training. These students who run these programmes are likely to be more relatable and have more connections with the local communities and young people that are being targeted.   

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