New colleges would improve Oxford’s access problem

They would demonstrate that this University is open to change

Green Templeton is Oxford's newest college by historic merger (source: Oxford University website)

Britain is a magnificent country, and one which, as a foreigner, I have quickly learned to love. Britain is a country that is generally very tolerant of racial and religious differences, which offers a high quality of life to its citizens, and which is mercifully free of crime, corruption, and ethno-linguistic tension. Britain is, in short, a wonderful place to live. All countries must have their Achilles’ heel though, and there can be no doubt what the UK’s is.

This country has the lowest level of intergenerational social mobility in the developed Western world, lower even than that of the United States. A child born in Canada or Australia (societies which in most other respects are all but identical to this one) has more than double the chance British children have of earning more than their parents. It should be noted that the acute problem isn’t actually the level of inequality or the percentage of the population living in poverty, neither of which are notably worse than other OECD economies.

The problem is the fact that the poverty which does exist is inescapable. Social mobility is the one great embarrassment of an otherwise gleamingly successful country, and it needs to be improved as a matter of urgency. As such, the Higher Education Policy Institute’s recent suggestion that Oxford increase its number of colleges should be welcomed. Contrary to many of the misconceptions about this suggestion, these additional colleges would not be specifcally earmarked for students from access backgrounds. The point of their addition would just be to increase the number of undergraduate places at this institution, in line with action from other universities across the country. This would bolster students’ chances of both applying to the university and of being accepted.

What’s more, there is an enormously important symbolism in the addition of new colleges. Oxford has (rightly or wrongly) a continued international reputation as a symbol of the rigidity of the British class system. New colleges would demonstrate that the University is open to change, and is willing to alter the feeling of exclusion that its commitment to tradition can evoke. More colleges mean more students, which means more societies, more ideas, more scope for experimentation. New colleges would make Oxford a more diverse and a more exciting place and the idea should be wholeheartedly embraced.

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  1. “More colleges mean more students, which means more societies, more ideas, more scope for experimentation.”

    However, selection should be about suitability – academic suitability – and nothing else. Anything else is aside from the real point, and will have to involve some sort of extraneous discrimination.

    Are there enough candidates of a suitable calibre? It seems that increasing the number of students will inevitably decrease academic standards.

  2. More colleges would mean more places available, but without specific measures designed to attract and admit disadvantages students, most places would simply be filled by advantaged candidates. Creating more colleges wouldn’t come anywhere close to changing the culture of society, which is truly at the root of social mobility and Oxford’s access problem.