Access denied? Reflections on a revealing week in Oxford

Students share their personal perspectives on Oxford's access report

Source: Max Pixel

Daanial Chaudhry – 1st year PPE-ist, Somerville 

Ironically, Cherwell’s article on the access report was written by six white individuals, only one of whom is a woman. This demonstrates a systemic issue that extends beyond the confines of a single admission statistic. It is perhaps symptomatic of how, once BME students are here, they remain chronically underrepresented across student societies, and indeed across student journalism. As such, even for the small minority of BME, and particularly black students, that receive an offer from Oxford, their opportunities once here, and afterwards, are severely limited when compared to their white, and often better-off, counterparts.

This is a social issue. Students from underrepresented groups do not have the same social network created at school which then continues at university, leaving them unaware of and unable to access certain opportunities. Whilst black and white students may both finish as Oxford graduates, the white one finishes with statistically a better chance of gaining a first as well as the connections to catapult them into a high-paying job.

There is also a psychological effect at play that cannot be ignored: the idea that Oxford is not for students from a particular background. This is an untruth, but it continues to discourage people from applying. Only through persistent efforts to encourage people from underprivileged backgrounds, based on class or race, to apply and by telling them that they can succeed, will these statistics change.

Molly Innes – Social Backgrounds Officer, LMH 

The report reveals shameful revelations that I won’t repeat here. We can see these statistics both in our experiences in Oxford, and now from the report. It solidifies the facts that we could have already guessed. And yet, what the report doesn’t reveal is arguably most revealing about Oxford as an institution.

The report separates ‘state’ from ‘independent’ schools. Yet there is no differentiation between the types of state schools we come from. In a table at the end of the report, listed under ‘state’ are: ‘Academy, Comprehensive, FE Institutions, Grammar, Sixth Form College, and Other Maintained’ The experience of a student from a comprehensive (like myself) is very different to one from a grammar, or even a sixth form college.

A report from October 2016 highlighted that 2.6% of grammar school pupils come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Initiatives like the Uniq summer school (without which I wouldn’t be here) are doing brilliant work.

But it appears that the University is using the news, that 500 more places will be opening on the summer school, to cushion the injustice that the report shows: we are not all in the same boat when coming from a state school. Our university should be ashamed for suggesting that we are.

Catherine Canning – VP Access and Academic, Oxford SU

This week, Oxford released the first Annual Admissions Statistical Report. Does there need to be a concerted effort to change? Yes, it’s happening and we need to keep improving and go even further. I love meeting young people and trying to change their perceptions of this town and university.

Access and outreach is just one way of reaching the people who would never have otherwise considered Oxford. But access is more than an offer letter and starts before the application process and is still an issue post-graduation.

Our fantastic students campaign and volunteer alongside their degrees to try and change this place. Whether it’s lobbying for structural reform or supporting those who are underrepresented when they get here, students want to keep making a difference and improve this university from the inside. We have students who volunteer in a variety of ways to encourage young people to consider applying to Oxford.

However, the structural challenges to access cannot be solved by student action alone, it needs bold actions from the university, schools and government policy to make Oxford truly accessible.

Realistically, how we are going to change things here? Students are always trying to
improve this institution, so become that voice, hold this university to account and reduce the barriers for the next generation

Alexander Curtis – 3rd year Geographer, St. Catz

It is of no surprise in the slightest that the BA Geography course at Oxford has been revealed to be one of the worst performing in terms of accessibility to those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Only 7.3% of UK students admitted over the last three years came from areas classed under ACORN categories 4 and 5, the lowest of any degree course other than Classics. Similarly, a mere 5.9% of students admitted to the course over the same time period came from POLAR quintiles 4 and 5. Only Oriental Studies performed worse on that measure.

The structure of the Geography course itself is seemingly designed to favour the socioeconomically privileged. Dissertation topics involving travel (self-funded, of course) to exotic and far-flung locations are known to be fetishised amongst students and staff alike.

The low contact hours and often abstract human geography content associated with the course are almost tailor-made for the minor independent school ‘gap yah’ type who wants to spend most of their time at Oxford promoting their street credentials and reminiscing at parties (often with peers who they were at school with) about their time volunteering at an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka. I have found many such people to be perfectly nice. After all, I count many as my friends. However, the departmental culture which I have outlined is hardly welcoming towards those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom have no experience of travel at all.