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Oxford: opportunity and disadvantage

Mark Damazer

It is some time since I have written about Oxford and ‘access’, the word most commonly used to describe Oxford’s record (and indeed its efforts) in admitting undergraduates from underprivileged backgrounds (a broad term that encompasses disadvantage derived from one or all of schooling, poverty, ethnicity or disability).

Over the next few weeks, I will write about the subject on a number of occasions, in part because I am head of the University’s admissions Policy Committee (ADCOM – we like acronyms here), and we are soon likely to recommend quite a number of changes in the way Oxford organises its efforts to attract the broadest range of students. We do not start from a position of iniquity or indifference. The caricature of detached indifference and passivity when thinking about social mobility is both wrong and corrosive.

I am also drawn to write because a) we have come to the end of this year’s ‘offer season’, when students find out whether or not they have been offered a place (subject to getting the grades) and b) because so much of what is written is both wrong and damaging – damaging in that the ‘guff’ adds to the difficulty of persuading bright 17-year-olds, their parents and their teachers that they should try Oxford.

Open Day 2016

The Guardian on Saturday has this story, and although it is unquestionably true that the prominent Labour politician David Lammy criticised Oxford in one particular regard, and largely in good humour, The Guardian’s description of the event is significantly inaccurate. It was, in fact, a very engaging and constructive occasion with almost all the Oxford contributions managing both to advertise what is good about how we think and act, while suggesting that we need to do more and make our efforts more effective. Which is right.

Oxford does a lot to try to ensure that the best students with talent and potential apply and get a place, no matter where they come from. The bursary scheme is probably the most generous in the country, and over £5 million a year is spent on hosting events, visiting schools, organising school trips to Oxford, and much, much else. St Peter’s, like many other colleges, has a dedicated Schools Liaison Officer, and we organise a great many events of different kinds to try to de-mythologise Oxford and provide focused encouragement.

So to get started here are few facts... 

10% of Oxford students come from homes where household income is less than £16,000. For what it’s worth, more or less 60% come from state schools. I say ‘for what it’s worth’ because the state school figure is not one that Oxford has as a target with its regulator OFFA, because it is crude. Hills Road Sixth Form College, a great school in Cambridge with what might be called, with some understatement, an attractive catchment area, sends large clumps of students to Oxbridge each year – far more than almost all independent schools. A significant minority of Oxbridge students from independent schools were on bursaries, and there are many other complexities. 

Open Day 2016

But Oxford has not done a great job in persuading people that the state vs. independent metric is too simple, and we are lumbered with it. In my experience, it is very unusual to find anyone outside Higher Education who knows the true figure. Most people, and that includes quite a large number of teachers, think the state school Oxford figure is much lower – sometimes by an almost hilarious amount.

But, yes, there is more to do. We do not get as many ‘under-privileged’ (and forgive the idiom) students with the appropriate grades applying as we would like. We get many, but we would like more. The admissions system involves huge amounts of hard work and reflection – often-agonised reflection, by tutors – and they make their judgments with integrity. But the colleges’ combined outreach efforts are not always mapped out or executed in a way that makes sense of the problem, and we might do more to ensure we have the chance of making the most informed decisions. 

That is enough for now – but I will come back to all of this.

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