Banishing elitist traditions, de-mystifying applications, and peer support

Three students weigh in on how to tackle Oxbridge's access problem

All Souls College, Oxford Photo: Tejvan Pettinger

Recent revelations explain the eyebrows raised around me when I hesitantly took the plunge and applied to Oxford. Enthusiastic teachers and family members had been vital to my decision as I had seen zero effort by Oxford or Cambridge to sell themselves to able students from my town in the West Midlands, a region hardly famed for its Oxbridge track record. It is not only shocking how few black and ethnic minority students gain entrance, but how the odds are tilted unacceptably in favour of leading London private schools and the south-east.

The problem is one of outreach: it is all well and good basing entry entirely on much-vaunted ‘academic potential’, but what about those talented students who are simply too scared to try, totally unaware of their eligibility?

How, then, can we detoxify perceptions of applying to Oxford both among ethnic minority students, and schools above the Thames?

The debate is not solely about ethnicity: I’m white, ‘middle class’ and have always appreciated a little pomp and spectacle, but I still suffered an obvious culture shock upon arriving in Oxford. I’ve not quite taken to the gowns and quirky ceremonies just yet, but that’s not to say I never should have applied.

There is, nevertheless, much to be done. Remnants of that bygone age, of Old Boys – of Sebastian Flytes, Camerons and Osbornes – need to be laid to rest if we are to be rid of unhelpful stereotypes and encourage ‘normal’ and talented students to see Oxford in a better light. Sexist clubs and disturbing initiations must go, and academic prowess underlined.

Admissions tutors too need to be prepared to agree that an A-grade achieved at one type of school is not always equivalent to one achieved at another.

Yet it is important to remember that the problem is not entirely that of Oxford and Cambridge, or regional divides: ultimately, the decision to apply belongs to the applicant. Coming to Oxford has, after all, required a degree of acceptance of the eccentric and intriguingly old-fashioned, but at what point do the charms of ‘Hogwarts’ become elitist and inaccessible?

There is still work to do.

By Oliver Shaw

Recent figures released by the Sutton Trust reveal Oxford’s shocking access problem. This is a problem that needs to be addressed, and to do so requires an understanding of what causes the problem.

It’s very easy to point a finger at forces acting beyond our control. The broader system of private schools ‘just being better’, perhaps. But it’s far more constructive to look past that to something that can be changed. From there, an issue that can be pinpointed as keeping disadvantaged students away from Oxford is the complexity of the application system.

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Students at private schools have an easier time of this: they have a steady stream of history on their side. People from their school can come back and teach them the ins and outs of aptitude test structures and grill them in thorough practise interviews. They head into a situation of applying to Oxford already knowing exactly what’s expected of them, or at least with a pretty good idea.

To an extent, the University and some state schools are trying to address this. Access programmes such as UNIQ and school staff who advise on Oxbridge applications attempt to bridge the gap in knowledge and experience. But the fact is that access programmes cannot reach every necessary student and some teachers give advice that’s decades out of date.

Therein lies the other access problem Oxford is facing: the widespread perception of the University as an elitist institution inaccessible to anyone but the most perfect of students. Rumours fly from ill-informed but well-meaning staff members of the necessity of four A-Levels, A*A*A predictions for a course with AAA requirements, a string of A*s at GCSE, an instrument or two under your belt, and half a library of reading on every imaginable topic.

When it comes to figures such as those released in the Sutton Trust report, it’s easy to see why access is such a problem. Why bother applying to a university where the odds are stacked against you from the beginning, or when no one in your school is expected to gain results on par with the Oxbridge average?

The statistics cannot and will not change overnight. What can and should change, however, is the transparency of the application procedure and how many students therefore feel like they have the knowledge to at least give an Oxford application a shot.

By Sam Gillard

The Sutton Trust social mobility charity recently released statistics revealing that in the past three years, eight elite schools sent more students to Oxford and Cambridge than 2900 other schools combined. I went to one of those schools, Magdalen College School, which last year sent 44 people to Oxbridge out of a year group of around 150. Though I find these numbers appalling, I don’t find them surprising.

It is true that having more resources helps massively: we had teachers with Oxbridge backgrounds, we were given dedicated classes to prepare us for admissions tests, and those who wanted to could (mostly) apply for re-marks without considering the cost. But I don’t think that’s the only difference. One of the biggest access bottlenecks is applications: somebody from a school like mine is much more likely to apply than somebody with the same predicted grades from one of those 2900 other schools. That isn’t surprising when you consider that, in those schools, it would be rare for more than a few people to have got into Oxbridge in recent memory, whereas for me and my friends there were dozens of role models in the years above. On top of that, once you’re sending 40 or so people a year to Oxbridge, you’re going to attract applications from people for whom such a school is feasible and who want to follow suit. The whole thing begins to snowball, and the process is normalised. My tutors at Oxford have said that to do well in a philosophy degree, you have to talk about philosophy with your friends. It does seem to help: three people from Magdalen’s philosophy club are now philosophy first years at Oxford.

When I was 15, I did well enough in the Intermediate Maths Olympiad to be invited to a summer camp. There, I met other high-scoring young mathematicians, from all across the country, and from many different backgrounds and types of schools. When the week ended, many of us stayed in contact, discussing interesting maths problems, and later, university applications. Three years down the line, almost everybody applied to Oxbridge, and most got in. That camp offered some of the critical advantages that Magdalen did: connecting promising students, and letting them support each other. However, the camp was designed to be entirely meritocratic, and it only lasted a week.

The access debate is a complex one, and I am aware that peer support is only one facet. But I think this particular facet helps explain how so few schools can become so dominant. It’s not just about the money these pupils’ families may have. While I must admit that I might not have competed in the Olympiad if my school hadn’t made me, I have seen first hand that it is possible to create environments outside school that offer this same benefit and that are, importantly, accessible to more people.