The University and the colleges have released a welter of statistics about undergraduate admissions, a subject of understandable public interest, college and university interest, and personal interest. (I was for two years Chair of the University’s Admissions Policy Committee.)
I have written about this on the blog before, and referred to it in an occasional article. The subject arouses passion, recrimination, finger-pointing, and what might loosely be termed political rhetoric. The subject has toxic elements.
Why? In part, because Britain is unusual in that a small number of universities (in England, above all, Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial) are thought to be particularly desirable, despite the fact that there are many good universities throughout the UK, and that, for some people, some other places are likely to be a better fit, largely because they offer courses that may be more suitable than the ones we offer here.
Oxford, for instance, does not offer Veterinary Science or Architecture at all, and its Modern Languages degrees require a passion for literature, as well as the ability to speak and write in another language. So, if you want to study French and Business, then there are other institutions that might suit better, no matter the academic excellence of French at Oxford. And so on.
For some, getting to Oxbridge is a target that they have set for themselves, or that their parents or teachers have set for them. Getting a place is thus a hurdle knocked over, and one to add to the GCSE and A levels (or IB, or whatever), which have already been tackled and surmounted. There is nothing wrong with that. But a place here is not an end, it is a means to an end – the point being, to come here and study seriously while enjoying all the other things that a decent university can provide.
For some, the attraction will be the physical beauty of the place – a medley of architectural styles dating back a long way, and a city that is big enough to have something of a life beyond the University, but small enough to get around very easily.
But, of course, it is in part because the teaching method here promises something different to most other universities, not merely in the UK, but anywhere. The tutorial system provides very small-group teaching, often with very senior academics, and almost always with highly motivated teachers, whose efforts look to bring the best out of every student and to provide a great deal of intensive educational contact. The nature of the tutorial system will differ from subject to subject, as well as from college to college, and it is sometimes stretched, but it is still functioning.
In any event, although the Ivy League universities in the USA have lustre and prestige, there is a wide range of other American colleges/universities with excellent reputations, and it seems to matter less there than it does here where precisely you end up at age 18.
The attractiveness of Oxbridge is not something that Oxbridge should be blamed for. Doubtless, there is some snobbery afoot, and some unnecessary dismissiveness of great places elsewhere, but Oxbridge has strong intrinsic virtues: talent, resources, wonderful libraries and labs, the tutorial system, multiple nationalities, aesthetic wonder. And so on.
So a lot of people want to come every year as undergraduates: about 20,000 for fewer than 3,500 places. It is a competitive business, and very hard choices are made by people trying hard to get it right, based purely on every applicant’s academic potential and merit. Nobody gets a place here simply because of money or sporting prowess. That is not, by the by, the case in America.
Oxford has been trying hard for quite a while (I’d guess 20 years or so) to attract more of the ablest students, no matter their background. St Peter’s was among the earliest to employ an outreach officer, and we host scores of events every year, focusing very hard on schools without a track record of sending tens of students each year to Oxbridge. We visit schools, too, and sometimes I am pretty sure we will be generating greater interest in Oxford than would otherwise have been the case, but the applications are sometimes for other colleges. If you want to enjoy a lake, then Worcester is the college. If you want an ancient library, then Magdalen. But it is right that we do these things for the good of all, as well as for St Peter’s.
The figures released today are complex. They include the State vs Independent figure so beloved of the media. It is simple to understand, if crude. This coming October, St Peter’s will probably have about 60% of its UK intake from state schools. The wider world normally assumes an Oxford college probably has not more than half this number. There are other indicators. A Sutton Trust study suggested a few years back that we had a good record in admitting students from less privileged backgrounds, once they applied here. But we know that by some measures we are not top of the class.
What would help? For Oxford as a whole, we need more parents and teachers to give us a chance, and we need to keep talking to them. Some of the stuff written about this place is pre-manufactured to suit some particular aspects of the mythology. A large number of able students need more encouragement. We need to be surer than we sometimes are about which of the things we do are working well (and less well). I would like more accommodation at St Peter’s to attract even better students than we have, and I know that some from poorer backgrounds fret, in advance, about living outside the college for a year (although they mostly enjoy the experience, once they have done it).
We are now working with two other colleges (Corpus and Balliol) in a loose confederation to try and get some economies of scale in what we do. That should ensure we meet more eyeballs and eardrums. We have The Schools Ambassador programme, paid for by a charity. We will keep at it.