Oxbridge must take responsibility for ‘systemic’ access issues

A centralised admissions system and greater contextualisation could offer a solution

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Every week seems to bring more news, more statistics, and more proof for how incredibly skewed our university is towards accepting those from the ‘elite’ schools. The Sutton Trust have found that eight schools sent 1,310 students to Oxbridge between 2015-2017, whilst the combined total from 2,894 other schools – roughly three quarters of all schools and colleges – was 1,220. Disappointing, but unsurprising. Those of us who already feel the prominence of the private sector within the university and our individual colleges won’t be surprised by this data, but hopefully it highlights the shocking proof to those who have been ignorant to it so far. Although, I ask, how many reports do we need to read before obvious change happens?

Oxford’s Vice Chancellor wrote in May 2018 – at the same time the university’s access report was announced- that “We still reflect the deep inequalities in British society, but we provide a powerful engine of social mobility for all our students.” Well, as the new data shows: some students are more mobile than others. Oxford and Cambridge cannot claim to be the best universities in the country whilst continuing to deflect responsibility. The argument that inequality is deep rooted in society and impacts children from a young age is undoubtedly correct; according to TeachFirst, “33% of pupils on free school meals achieved 5 A*- C at GCSE, compared to 60.5% of pupils overall.” Universities obviously face problems when accepting students, with the urge to accept the ‘best and brightest’ leaning them towards accepting students who have paid for that label. Contextually, however, the sheer determination of the underprivileged to cross a variety of barriers in schooling indicates they are more than capable of achieving places at Oxbridge. 3 A*s from a special measures state school far surpass 3 A*s from Eton. Admissions need to be contextualised to a greater level than they clearly are currently being.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll carry on saying it until I’m forced to stop: a centralised system would dispel many of the access problems. The issue of access at Oxford has been raised to such a convoluted level that it seems near impossible to change the seemingly inherent inequality within the University walls. Structurally, this is on purpose. The people – largely – controlling the system don’t want it to radically change, why would they? Therefore, it seems like a harder issue than it really is. But it isn’t as complicated as we are led to believe.

The issue is systemic, as we are so frequently told. Yet, Oxbridge hides behind this word ‘systemic’. These institutions deflect blame. Yet, if Oxford and Cambridge do want to improve access, they have the ability to do so from the inside. When an issue is ‘systemic’ this is not give individuals the right to avoid blame. For such supposedly ‘intelligent’ universities, how can they constantly be so negligent and ignorant when it comes to access? The same universities that claim to want to push for more equality in access and diversity in admissions are the same institutions that accept 70 to 80 students from Westminster school a year, but between 2015 and 2017 a quarter of Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black student.

The BBC has collected testimonies from state schools that have seen a rise in the number of Oxbridge candidates being given offers in the last few years. I found these particularly interesting, especially the comments from William Baldwin, principal of non-selective state sixth form Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College, where 57 students received Oxbridge offers; 27 of these were students of ‘less affluent’ backgrounds. Baldwin “put the success down to dedicating college resources to admissions and employing a full-time co-ordinator of Oxbridge applications.” Most state schools do not have the resources to do this. My school certainly didn’t. Statistics from The Department of Education this year found that the number of teachers working in state-funded schools in England has “fallen to its lowest level since 2013.” Quite simply, some state schools barely have enough teachers, let alone the resources to hire an Oxbridge specific co-ordinator. And why should they have to? Oxford University should be accepting students on the basis of interview training, verbal reasoning, or cultural capital.

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A university where “independent school pupils are 7 times more likely to gain a place at Oxford or Cambridge compared to those in non-selective state schools” is not a diverse, inclusive or encouraging place to be. It’s unnecessary. The Sutton Trust report highlights how prejudiced Oxbridge is. Prejudice we already knew existed, but information that provides more evidence for holding the institutions accountable. The continuation of a few ‘elite’ independent schools to dominate, reflects the combination of a flawed university and a flawed society colliding together to create a space where money and connections hold greater value than grit, determination, and working against a prejudiced system.

I want to suggest that Oxbridge is not the cause of the inequality and lack of social mobility currently present in the country, and that these universities are symptomatic of a flawed state. But let’s not forget that roughly a third of all MPs were privately educated, with almost one in ten studying at Eton. Oxbridge’s problem with inequality and its’ lack of diversity is not confined to the universities, but neither is Oxbridge removed from society. Oxbridge’s influence is, unfortunately, felt everywhere. They should take responsibility for this.


  1. Would a centralised admissions system really change the outcomes? Surely it would only change the outcomes if you change the entrance criteria. Unless you remove objective criteria – exam results – and increase subjective criteria- an assessment of potential, which, by the very nature of such an assessment is always likely to fail as often as it succeeds (and look at the hit rate of Premier League Academy graduates if you want an example from another sphere of the difficulties in judging potential), then you are always going to end up with a small number of extremely high achieving schools, both state and private, dominating admissions. If you are really arguing for an objective entrance system then you need to look a bit deeper than simply removing the colleges from the process.

  2. Err, isn’t the problem disparity in the odds of admission between degree courses, compounded by the fact that widening participation candidates tend to apply for the most over-subscribed courses? But instead of proposing a solution to this (eg a common natural sciences first year), you blame the colleges. Yet reallocation, moving candidates between colleges, means that there is no actual college access problem. Added to which, the colleges appear to be doing the heavy lifting in terms of schools outreach and the departments very little. Could you explain your argument?

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