Oxford ‘must do more’ to recognise potential in poorer applicants

Oxford disputes claims by government's university access tsar that Oxford and Cambridge 'still had a mountain to climb' to improve diversity

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Christ Church, Oxford. Image: Ron Porter/Pixabay

Oxford and Cambridge are not doing enough to make themselves accessible to more disadvantaged students, according to the government’s universities access tsar.

Speaking at the University of Buckingham’s Festival of Higher Education, Professor Les Ebdon, the Director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), said that Oxbridge still have a “mountain to climb” to improve their diversity.

Ebdon criticised the requirement from top universities for applicants to achieve A* grades at A-level, an expectation he said was unrealistic for most pupils from state schools, of whom only “very few” can attain those grades.

He recognised that Oxford does use “contextual data” on applicants’ backgrounds to judge candidates – but that it must do more.

“If you ask me, ‘Should they be doing more?’, the answer is yes, obviously, because they have… so few students on free school meals, so few students from different ethnic minorities”, Ebdon said.

“So yes, they certainly should be doing more, and that’s my job, to make sure that they do do more.”

When asked about Oxford and Cambridge’s attempts to encourage diversity, Ebdon responded: “Do I think there’s fair access at Oxbridge? Well obviously not.” However, he acknowledged that both universities had improved in their outreach, as “we’re seeing the highest level of state school students at Oxbridge for over 30 years”.

But, he said, he required Oxbridge to “do more work than anyone else” to tackle inequality in their admissions processes.

“Oxbridge need to make a decision, and it is a decision for them as to what the balance of subjects is. They have a series of decisions to make and I actually am legally not allowed to interfere with the admissions process. But I wish they would recognise potential more than they currently do.”

Admissions data released by Ucas displayed that only 45 places were awarded at Oxford to black applicants in 2016, out of the 2,555 overall offers – a drop from the 50 offers made to black students in 2015.

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Application rates were also unequal in terms of wealth, as over 5,000 students from the wealthiest 20% applied, contrasted with only 420 from the poorest 20%.

Oxford University has hit back at the claims, citing its provisions to increase access amongst disadvantaged pupils.

“The University already makes extensive, systematic use of contextual data to identify high potential in students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” an Oxford spokesperson said.

“Our academic tariffs are also set to take account of these students’ performance in specific subjects. For example, the tariff is AAA for the majority of our humanities courses. We back this up with one of the UK’s biggest outreach programmes, worth more than £4 million annually.”

The spokesperson added that their “fair and effective system” is delivering significant progress.  “In 2016, 35.2% of our accepted undergraduates came from a disadvantaged category, compared to 31.5% in 2010,” they said. “For 2017 entry, disadvantaged candidates have, for the first time ever, been more successful in winning offers to Oxford than the UK average.”

Some Oxford students and campaign were also quick to question Ebdon’s remarks, highlighting University measures to aid more disadvantaged students.

Ebdon’s remarks came as his annual report on widening access to UK universities was published. It found that the number of poorer students dropping out of university had reached the highest level in five years.

In March, Oxford announced a new summer school with the intention of targeting “white British” working class areas for admissions. Date shows that “less well off” white boys are the demographic group least likely to go to University in the UK.