Somerville’s summer school shame

Somerville College has admitted that it is “concerned” about the advertising material on the website of one of the summer schools that uses
its grounds.

The College told Cherwell that it instructs all summer schools with which it has dealings not to hold themselves out as representatives of the College or University, or to claim to be able to help students with admission to Oxford.

The Oxford Institute, which runs a residential academic course for a month at Somerville over the Long Vacation, costing £6,499 for a four week course, informs visitors to its website, “We offer comprehensive courses to help students prepare for the admission process at Oxford and
Cambridge Universities.”

The website goes on to claim that The Oxford Institute is “perfectly placed for students who intend to apply for admission to Oxford and Cambridge Universities”.

James Blythe, OUSU’s VP for Access & Academic Affairs, was keen to quash the idea that paid summer schools would increase a student’s chances of receiving an Oxford offer, saying, “The message must come loud and clear from everyone in Oxford to potential applicants: you do not need to spend any money on any private company’s programmes to get a place here.

“While I understand the financial challenges facing the colleges and the benefits to students that conference income brings, any benefit must always be weighed up against the potential damage to access to this University caused by allowing an organisation use of college premises, with the implicit or explicit suggestion of a close relationship between the college and the organisation.”

Somerville College told Cherwell that they had been in contact with The Oxford Institute and asked them to change their advertising. At the time of publication, however, no changes had been made.

In a statement, the College said, “When the Conference Office accepted the application from The Oxford Institute originally, they signed a contract agreeing not to represent themselves as being in any way part of Somerville or the University. The current wording on their website is not as clear as we would like, and we are concerned also about the implication that they would be training people in how to apply to Oxford: both of those things have to change if Governing Body is to be content, and we have told Oxford Institute
so.”

However, Adnan Rafiq, Director (Social Sciences) at The Oxford Institute insisted to Cherwell, “Admissions guidance is only a small part of our programme and less than ten per cent of teaching time is dedicated for this purpose. Our summer programme can therefore not be dubbed as ‘Oxbridge Admissions Training’. Blowing the admissions advice aspect of our program out of proportion is unfair.”

Related  Investigation: Fines and punishment in Oxford

He also repeated the claims from the school’s website, saying, “However, our programme is indeed valuable for students who are interested in obtaining admission in top universities and some of our students have indeed been accepted at the best universities in the world, including Oxford.”

“20 per cent of students enrolled on our 2014 programme were on fully funded scholarships… and were selected on academic merit.”

A video on The Oxford Institute’s website refers to Somerville College’s Senior Tutor, Dr Steve Rayner, as a “guest lecturer”, and shows him talking to students. Dr Rayner told Cherwell that he was in fact giving an admissions talk, explaining how the Oxford application process worked.

There has also been controversy around Oxford Summer Courses, another summer school which uses Somerville College grounds. Somerville JCR voted in Novermber to express its disapproval that College grounds were being used for a school which, in its view, was “damaging to access”. 

However, while Somerville admitted that The Oxford Institute had failed to follow the College’s guidelines on advertising, it denied that Oxford Summer Courses had done anything wrong, pointing out that nowhere does Oxford Summer Courses claim explicitly to help prospective Oxford applicants. 

Investigating this, Cherwell emailed Oxford Summer Courses, posing as a sixth-form student worried about applying to Oxford, and wondering if the course would help. 

Barbara Phipps, the Course’s Admissions & Courses Administrator, replied, “We can certainly help you with interview practice whilst you are with us. All our staff are either current undergraduates or alumni. They have been through the process and will be able to help you with what to expect. All you need to do is decide which subject you would like to study”. 

Back in November, Somerville College told the JCR, “The summer schools we host are not acting as interview training camps,” and it repeated this assertion to Cherwell, saying, “The OSC website does not sell the company as preparing people for the interview process. The email you sent (which we have not seen) was presumably a personal request for interview help, and the answer you quote them as giving appears to be legitimate.”

Related  New College trademarks its name

Meanwhile, Robert Phipps, Director of Oxford Summer Courses, was quick to defend the programme, saying, “To make you aware, I have been through our application data and in the entire history of Oxford Summer Courses less than 0.2 per cent of the applicants have gone on to study at Oxford University and less than 1 per cent of the students who attended Oxford Summer Courses have gone on to study at Oxford Univeristy.

“There are some organisations that offer Oxbridge admissions consulting (with success rates well above the c. 20 per cent average) however we would wish to distance ourselves from those providers as we are in the business of running an academic summer school.”

Abby Carroll, who has just completed her tenure as Access Officer at Somerville, did not agree with the College though, telling Cherwell, “I think it’s encouraging that they’re taking our worries seriously enough to contact [The Oxford Institute] and ask them to remove any potentially misleading advertising, although it’s my opinion that these companies rely on people assuming they’ll be given an advantage in the application process by taking part and do little to dispel this assumption.

“The OSC website is considerably more subtle than The Oxford Institute’s, but it’s about the affiliation with Oxford, the ‘Oxford life’, the Oxford tutorials. Using University property gives the impression that they’re sanctioned and encouraged by the University (although OSC explicitly states they’re not affiliated with either the University or the College), and I think this gives participants the impression they’re helping their chances.”

Another anonymous Somervillian, a former tutor for the charity Team Up, commented, “The University and its colleges need to act to stop our facilities, image and names being used to manipulate potential applicants and do lasting damage to access.”