New colleges would not improve Oxford’s access

Mansfield sets an example that all colleges have the resources to transform into access havens

Credit: Tejvan Pettinger

The Higher Eduation Policy Institute’s suggestion of creating new colleges for under-represented groups is well-intentioned, but it misses the real root of Oxford’s access problem, and would only perpetuate socio-economic segregation. The misguided proposal implies that students from under-privileged backgrounds should be shunted off into separate spaces, whilst existing colleges continue to be woefully inadequate in their diversification and access programmes.

Oxbridge’s imbalanced intake is almost certainly not a result of insufficient spaces, but rather that they aren’t fairly used. Around 41% of Oxbridge’s intake is privately educated, and over 80% come from the top two social classes. 48% of offers go to students in the South East and London, and between 2010 and 2015, 13 Oxford colleges did not admit a single black student. The idea that simply providing a greater number of spaces through the establishment of new colleges would solve this verges on the nonsensical: this is more than evident in the admissions statistics. There are plenty of privileged applicants who currently miss out on Oxbridge places. What’s to say new colleges wouldn’t simply provide more places for them, rather than boosting student representation?

The alternative would be the somewhat disturbing possibility of these proposed new colleges being targeted solely at disadvantaged demographics. Placing these students apart from their more socially privileged peers, in colleges which would likely be less wealthy and more geographically distant than existing ones, is more grudging tokenism than real inclusion. If access solutions can be offered, they must not be limited to a few colleges, but put into place across the whole university.

This isn’t even an ‘if’ question: it has been done. Around 15 years ago, my own college, Mansfield, set out to improve its diversity and it has succeeded – over 90% of my year are state-educated, and this percentage is set to increase further. Financially, we are very much one of the least wealthy undergraduate colleges: the excuse that other colleges are too strapped for cash and resources to do anything doesn’t cut it. Mansfield is, as yet, an anomaly in the Oxbridge establishment, but the success of its access initiative proves similar progress can and must be made by other colleges.

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  1. Lottie, if applicants discouraged by Mansfield simply apply to other colleges, there is no gain to the university. Isn’t this just a case of halo polishing?

  2. Why does Oxford have an “access problem”? It selects the best of those who want to go and study there, without any unfair discrimination. If people from the north of England, or from state schools, or blacks prefer to go to other universities, or don’t want to go to university at all, why is this a problem for Oxford? Oxford needs to remember that it is not the only university, and that a large proportion of applicants would actually prefer to study in an urban environment like London, Manchester or Birmingham, or in a city where living costs are significantly lower, like Swansea or Hull.