Oxford should not bear all the blame for its access problem

It was recently revealed that only 2.8% of Oxford’s intake for 2018 will come from areas defined as the most difficult to engage in higher education

Photo: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr

It was recently revealed that only 2.8% of Oxford’s intake for 2018 will come from areas defined as the most difficult to engage in higher education.

In a tweet responding to these figures, David Lammy MP offered the indictment: “Shame on them. Oxbridge take £700m a year in taxpayers’ money yet are not tackling entrenched privilege”. However, I fail to see how this helps the situation, with his remark suggesting that disappointing figures for access are entirely the fault of the University.

Oxford cannot and should not force students to apply, and the application process starts at the level of secondary education. Oxford can improve the way it engages with these schools and their respective pupils, but fundamentally the application process will always begin in school.

It’s woefully short-sighted to believe that the University is solely responsible. The long-term goal of improving access to those from the most socially and economically marginalised backgrounds can be met, but only through consistent collaboration between Oxford and secondary schools, a reality which is often ignored in media coverage of Oxbridge.

These latest statistics also revealed the disparity in the proportion of state-educated students at Oxford and Cambridge: 58% of students at Oxford are from state schools, compared to 62.6% at Cambridge.

From my own experience, I didn’t apply to Oxford the first time I applied to university in 2014, in part because no one from the University had ever visited my school. Having only 1 A, 4 Bs and 3 Cs at GCSE, I felt admission to Oxford, which emphasised the importance of having multiple A*s at GCSE just to attend the UNIQ summer school, was well outside of the realm of possibility.

I believe colleges should encourage current students to take part in outreach programmes and activities such as school visits, or even just engaging with potential applicants on forums like The Student Room – something I try and do whenever I can. Indubitably, it’s far easier to relate to a 19 or 20-year-old student than it is to an academic tutor whose life experience may seem irreconcilably removed from your own.

Whilst the current generation of Oxford students is probably the most representative it has ever been in the university’s 900-year history, Oxford cannot improve upon this alone: schools must see their critical role in the process. For example, when I was first applying to university, I was told unequivocally that one needed 8 A*s at GCSE to even attend an open day.

Rather than attacking Oxford for “taking £700m of taxpayer’s money” or for “entrenched privilege”, the way forward is surely to focus on how the current generation of Oxford students can harness their own experience to enable capable students to apply to Oxbridge.

Greater transparency is also needed: the figures for state sector admissions should be divided into comprehensives and grammar schools, so that the university is open and honest with regards to what proportion of its intake comes from just 150 or so grammar schools. Only through greater transparency, and collaboration with a variety of academies and free schools, can the potential of Oxford’s access programme be reached.

Should Oxford take the blame for its access problem?

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