Why we should be angrier about access

Rivka Shaw argues Oxford must introduce bold measures if it is to solve its access problems


Picture the scene. It’s autumn term 2016, and across the country Year 13s are beginning the process of applying to Oxford. All of a sudden, the University announces something radical. This year, they are going to accept a strictly proportional cohort: 93 per cent of their offers will go to state-educated applicants. Imagine the outrage.

Yet, when faced with an issue of inequality so massive, radical solutions are exactly what is needed. We all know the statistics: just over half of Oxford’s places go to state school students, despite the fact that only seven per cent of the population are privately educated. We’ve heard this all before, and we shake our heads in despair, and then we forget about it. There is an overwhelming sense among students, even those who care deeply about access, that there is a very narrow limit to what can be done.

On the Admissions Statistics section of the Oxford University website, the numbers are
surrounded by obfuscation: more private school students apply, and for less competitive subjects; a disproportionate number of private school students get the necessary grades; “Oxford […] believes that school type is a crude and sometimes misleading indicator of disadvantage”. These points are all relevant, but to suggest that they completely explain away the discrepancy in admissions is plainly ridiculous.

There is a worrying tendency to avoid facing Oxford’s access problem head on. Many people, both employed staff and JCR Access Officers, work extremely hard to improve access, yet are undermined by comments such as those recently made by our own Chancellor, blaming the quality of secondary school education for the inequalities visible in Oxford’s admissions. But an institution as powerful as Oxford has a responsibility too. There is a viciously self-perpetuating cycle in which low state school admissions produce low numbers of state school applications. I personally very nearly decided against applying, because of a belief that it simply wasn’t for me, that I wouldn’t have a chance
against my privately-educated rivals.

Of course, a 93 percent state school intake is a highly ambitious goal. But what about 80
percent? 70 percent? It’s hard not to wonder whether the University’s reluctance to tackle its private school problem directly – through affirmative action – is because of vast pressures against any removal of privilege from a largely Oxbridge-educated elite which runs the country, the media and the University itself. This silent bowing to pressure is something the University, and we as its members, should be ashamed of.

More on this story: Latest admissions data only reinforces stereotypes


  1. Don’t get angry; get even. Find out which of your dons are involved in admissions and in securing funding for your college, why they do what they do, and meet them; listen and persuade and demonstrate that equality of access is in their long term interest as well as in the interests of their disciplines and the nation.

    The Northern Gateway project here in Oxford has persuaded me that Oxford, as a university and as a neighbour, is undermining its own reasons for its own existence. Lack of access has a similar effect: it undermines the university’s reason for existence in the first place.

  2. The fact that Oxford takes a disproportionate number of private school students onto its courses does not by itself justify the kind of quotas being suggest here. If the aim of the proposed affirmative action is to encourage equality of opportunity for the disadvantaged, it is worth bearing in mind that proposed quota does not discriminate within the class of publicly educated; some state schools are more equal than others.

    There are other ways to raise the proportion of publicly educated students. Affirmative action is not limited to quotas and could be implemented by, for example, a bias towards state-school students in the form of extra points on admissions exams. The underlying logic is that the privately educated tend to have better opportunities in the form of better teachers, smaller classes, extra tuition, admissions coaching etc and will therefore be stronger candidates when the time to apply comes. The proposed bias might even the score and is justified if poor public schools hamper dedicated and talented students’ ability to shine on paper and at interview. Difficult questions would remain though. How many points should be awarded, and to whom? Should we differentiate according to the quality of the school?

    Ultimately, one cannot simply assume that affirmative action is necessary or even justified. Perhaps, we also need to ask not only why affirmative action is necessary, but why it is that Oxford University should be the institution to undertake this, as opposed to the state.

  3. “a largely Oxbridge-educated elite which runs the country [and] the media”

    Oh goodie, cabal time! This article is just a rehash of a whole load of unimpressive arguments that get wheeled out every few years. Oxford’s role is to educate academics – that’s why we don’t teach vocational subjects. That the majority of students do not stay in academia is nothing to do with the university. Our whole raison d’etre is to compete with other academic institutions. If the university becomes, as the writer seems to want, a mere tool for social engineering, then the whole point of our *research-based* university evaporates and no right-thinking person (either from a state or public school background) would want to apply here anyway.

    What really pisses me off each time this argument comes round, is the inevitable degree of self-congratulation and smugness. We are good at what we do in Oxbridge – that’s why people apply here – but we’re hardly better than a dozen competing institutions (LSE, UCL, Durham, Manchester etc…). Even if the hypothetical potential Oxbridge applicant from a state school background is put off applying to Oxbridge, they can do just as well (if not better) at a dozen other universities.

    What is really sad is that this what-university-to-apply-to argument misses a much more important demographic of people who do not apply to university – any university – at all.

  4. Couldn’t really agree with this less. If you introduce quotas for comprehensive students, you will reduce successful applicants achievements to filling numbers. Students who get in from state schools therefore won’t have the opportunity to come to Oxford on an equal playing field, that is when they arrive, they will always be subject to additional scrutiny about the legitimacy and validity of their offer.

    Besides, introducing quotas at this extreme would cause a crisis in student numbers. The reason we don’t have proportional representation is because not enough talented and able students from state schools apply in the first place. Creating quotas wouldn’t solve that problem, unless you’re going to start forcing people with the right grades to make an application.

    Writing this as someone who went to a comp and is now at Ox. Literally fed up of hearing this quota argument again and again!

  5. 93% state school? You do realize state schoolers contribute only to 59.2% of the AAAs and Oxford does have 55.6% acceptances to state schoolers already?

    This is despite the fact that not all state schoolers apply to Oxford, and even less likely when people like you keep painting the myth that Oxford admits students based on their schooling background. Only 62.5% of applications come from state schoolers to begin with.

    There’s also the fact that 34% for all state school applicants applied to the Top 5 oversubscribed courses whilst the figure is only 29% for applicants from the independent sector. At the same time, only 14% of state school applicants applied to the Top 5 least oversubscribed courses whilst it’s 18% for private schoolers.

    So you’re right. To have a quota at 93% would cause an uproar because it would mean Oxford would need to literally accept every single state school applicant regardless of their grades, to already heavily oversubscribed courses and close to less oversubscribed courses to make up the numbers, and even so, Oxford may still fall short of the target.

    Oh and also that anyone who goes to Oxford really shouldn’t be so thick as to suggest a 93% quota for state schoolers to begin with.


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