Oxford Access schemes: are they working?

In a report published by the government’s social mobility adviser on Monday, the number of working class entrants to prestigious universities is said to be dwindling. Interest about admissions to top universities is no new thing; even as early as 1852, the Royal Commissions listed access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds to Oxford and Cambridge as a key issue. 

Oxford is often cited as having one of the better funded access and outreach programmes in the UK, with time and resources dedicated to organising events in and outside of the city targeting students from state schools. In some respects, the outcomes appear very positive. There were over 1000 more applications from the maintained sector in 2012 than in 2006.

Despite the rise in admissions from the sector, acceptance rates for students from this sector remain virtually constant, with about 47% of students (46.8% in 2007) coming from the maintained sector. Indeed, even with the enormous increase in applications, only 39 more students from a maintained school were accepted in 2012 than five years earlier.

The most striking change in maintained applications, however, lies in the rate of success at application. This has dropped over the course of the last five years. In 2006, a student from the maintained sector would have almost a one in four chance of being accepted to the University (25.2%). Yet in 2011, this had dropped to one in five (19.9%).

This information has greater significance when considered in light of the two studies released to the Observer this week. These, produced by the universities of Cardiff and Oxford Brookes, indicate that once at university, state school pupils achieve well beyond their privately educated counterparts.

Oxford Brookes, like the University of Oxford, receives a higher proportion of applicants and entrants from private schools than the average. The findings from their study, however, have prompted the university to adjust their targets for state school entrants and to consider making lower offers to candidates from particularly deprived backgrounds.

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These are not the first reports of their kind: earlier research from the University of Bristol published in 2010 is frequently used as an example to justify access measures. Reports of this nature have often been criticised by schools in the independent sector as being incomplete.

Though statistically overrepresented at Oxford, success rates for students from the independent sector have also dropped. In 2007, applicants from the independent sector could expect almost a one in three (30.3%) chance of being admitted to the university. This is now at one in four (25.0%). 

In 2012, there were over 100 fewer students from the state sector admitted to Oxford, with the acceptance rate moving from 43.4% (37.5%). Though the independent sector educates only 7% of the total UK school population, they account for 15% of all A-level entries, while 33% of students receiving three As are privately educated.

Five years on, there are fewer students from the independent sector. But if the number of successful state-educated applicants remains the same, what makes up the shortfall? 15.6% of successful applicants in 2012 are neither privately nor state educated, comprising the ‘Other’ category. These include independent or overseas applicants. This has increased by over 5% from 10.1% (11.4% post-qualification) in 2006.

It is difficult to draw decisive conclusions from all this information, though exciting to note significant increases in applications from the state sector. However, while Oxford’s target of 62% of applicants from state schools is easily being met, it remains to be seen precisely how the university intends to turn a high rate of state-educated Oxford applicants into an equivalent rate of state-educated Oxford students.