Oxbridge admissions – time for action.

Last week’s news that Oxford and Cambridge universities are failing to diversify and broaden their undergraduate intakes to reflect British society was deeply depressing for anyone who believes in university access and participation as a social good.

The story broke in the same week that we hosted the launch of the Wad-Ham programme at NewVIc with a theatre full of sixth formers from schools across Newham and Tower Hamlets. These were mostly Black and Minority (BME) young people from ‘disadvantaged’ post-codes, likely to achieve straight A’s and A*’s at A-level and keen to consider applying to Oxbridge, although this isn’t an explicit aim of the scheme.

This well-established programme, supported by Wadham College, Oxford, gives our students a taste of university level teaching, writing, discussion, research and analysis and fosters an open mind and a broad outlook. It’s a wonderful opportunity which requires considerable additional commitment from participants and also includes a residential at Oxford. The overall theme of the programme: ‘Civilization and Barbarism’, allows for much interdisciplinary work and couldn’t be more appropriate for the times we live in.

Schemes like Wad-Ham and its precursor Pem-Brooke are brilliant ways to enrich the sixth form curriculum and they will also help our students make stronger applications to the most selective universities. We should also celebrate the achievements of initiatives such as the Lady Margaret Hall Foundation Year which reaches out to under-represented groups, and the work of colleges such as Mansfield in Oxford, which manages to recruit around 90% of its undergraduates from publicly funded sixth forms and 16% of BME heritage from the UK. We need more of this, it should be mainstream – commonplace. In fact, these successes serve to highlight the overall lack of movement and the complacency of an institutional response which often seeks to shift the blame onto schools or teachers rather than question its own selection methods.

One Oxford university spokesperson said: “Rectifying this is going to be a long journey that requires huge, joined-up effort across society – including from leading universities like Oxford – to address serious inequalities.” This may be true, but it doesn’t absolve the university itself from improving its own gatekeeping processes.

We know that elitism, discrimination and segregation run deep in British society and the damage they do goes well beyond Oxbridge and beyond education itself. Many of us are sceptical about the assumption that that Oxbridge or Russell Group universities must automatically be ‘top’ or ‘best’ simply because they are very selective. Nevertheless, we work tirelessly to try to ensure that our BME, state-educated and working-class students get their fair share of great publicly-funded educational opportunities. Our experience is that for every qualified student who gets a place, there are several more who were just as promising. When they get their chance, they generally do very well. For instance, both NewVIc students who progressed to Oxford university in 2013 graduated in 2017 with First Class degrees.

At a recent Black History Month reception the Prime Minister said: “No one’s ethnicity should stop them from pursuing their dreams. And as a country we cannot afford to squander the talents and ambitions of our young people. If we remove the barriers that remain, the potential for the future will truly be without limit.” Theresa May has also recently launched the Racial Disparity Audit to ‘shine a light on how our public services treat people from different backgrounds’.

Given the widespread support for the objective that ethnic and social diversity should be reflected in access to educational opportunities it’s deeply dispiriting that the very universities which have the greatest problem have yet to address the problem effectively. It’s quite right that the spotlight should be trained on them. The danger for those who fail to respond effectively to the challenge of becoming more representative, and therefore more diverse, is that they risk being marginalised and ultimately less sought after.

In fact, the ‘Oxbridge problem’ could be seen by other more inclusive universities as an opportunity to move into this territory and challenge the ‘Oxbridge / Russell Group equals quality’ hegemony, for instance by developing Liberal Arts degrees and highlighting the intellectual rigour and other aspects of their undergraduate experience such as small group tutorials which Oxbridge trades on, while also positively celebrating the benefits of diversity.

What can be done?

On our side of the admissions process, as ‘suppliers’ of under-represented students, we’re doing everything we can; raising achievement, giving good subject and application advice, preparing students for tests and interviews and grasping every opportunity to engage with Oxbridge colleges. We’ll do more if asked to. But we also need the giant, well-funded Oxbridge institutional tankers to take this really seriously and start to turn things around.

1. Set targets and work to achieve them: Setting hard targets would require the university to go out and ‘talent spot’ more proactively rather than waiting for applicants to roll in. The idea that there is only one ‘best’ way to select the ‘right’ undergraduates needs to be challenged. One could probably fill both Oxford and Cambridge universities with an entirely different cohort of equally well qualified undergraduate applicants without any impact on standards or rigour. If the university as a whole won’t set targets, the individual colleges could; if Mansfield can recruit 90% of its students from publicly-funded sixth forms, other colleges could also aim to reflect the fact that 93% of students are not privately educated and that 18% of UK 18 year olds are of BME heritage. Change could happen in steps, college by college.

2. Offer ‘reserved’ places: A number of places each year could be guaranteed to all sixth forms in proportion to the number of qualified students they have: A similar proposal was originally made by the journalist Peter Wilby and would give sixth form colleges or groups of sixth forms in the state funded sector the opportunity to select the qualified student(s) they judged to be most deserving of a place. Such a system would guarantee geographical spread, give sixth forms a stake in decisions and remove some of the quirkiness and unpredictability of the process by being based on more informed judgements and deeper background knowledge of candidates.

3. Reach out into areas of under-representation: The Foundation Year model could be taken into communities around the country as part of a new generation of university settlements. The original settlements created by Oxbridge colleges in the 19th and early 20th century brought students and researchers into inner city areas in sustained ways to understand and address pressing social issues and promote social solidarity. Students could combine sixth form and gap year volunteering serving their community with pre-degree preparation nearer to home, making the transition more gradual. One settlement per Oxbridge college, perhaps in partnership with a local university, could provide good national coverage and start to lay the foundations of a deeper relationship between universities and diverse communities.

4. Incentivize more representative recruitment: The Office of Fair Access (offa) expects universities to develop Access Agreements and can fine those which fail to make sufficient progress. But on the positive front, a simple student premium like the Pupil Premium in schools could act as a positive incentive for universities or constituent colleges to recruit more students from disadvantaged backgrounds or under-represented groups.

Rather than choosing from these approaches, I would suggest doing all 4 immediately – plus any others which look like they might work. This issue is too important to wait. We need Oxbridge to act now.

Photo shows Hugh Munro of Wadham College at the Wad-Ham launch last week at NewVIc.

See also:

Newham’s outstanding record of widening participation (August 2017)

Russell group numbers soar in Newham (August 2015)

Cracking Oxbridge (November 2015)

London’s engines of mobility (October 2015)

Russell group university progression: dispelling the myths (February 2015)

From free school meals to university (April 2015)

The Oxbridge challenge (July 2014)

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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2 Responses to Oxbridge admissions – time for action.

  1. nivekd says:

    Thanks. Good related letter from Helena Kennedy in this morning’s Guardian. And she’s a friend of FE! Keep on keeping on!

    • Thanks Kevin. I saw Helena Kennedy’s letter and got the Mansfield College data from that.
      They’re clearly showing that it’s possible to do admissions differently and that there’s nothing inevitable about under-representation.

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