Oxford’s image problem is the least of our admissions worries

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As an applicant from an FE college to Oxford, I found some problems with James Lamming’s argument that many of the criticisms levelled at Oxford for failing to meet access targets are misplaced (“Where schools don’t have resources, we’ll be picking up the pieces“, last week). He stated that Oxford and OUSU are doing all that they can to encourage people from state school backgrounds to apply, and that any failures seen in the figures is a consequence of poor resources in schools and “bad government policy”.
While this is true to some degree, it releases OUSU from any obligation to look at the way it views access initiatives in the context of the university as a whole. There is no doubting the fantastic work that the access schemes in Oxford carry out, from the Oxford Access Scheme to the work of Target Schools and individual colleges; yet there is still room for some change. If the university argues that “talking to current students is helpful to pupils who want to know more”, then OUSU should lead the way.
The truth when it comes to access initiatives in Oxford is that too much disparity between them exists. The resources available to a college on an open day are whatever the JCR and MCR can muster, or whatever funding the school can provide. OUSU can offer only what is available within its budget, while the Access Office has more resources to offer, but is reliant on students having some knowledge of their existence and work.
OUSU should be an umbrella organisation that offers services and support to individual colleges, and this is no different when it comes to access schemes: there should be a focal point provided for colleges in terms of gathering information and best practice, whilst maintaining a close relationship with the work of the Access Office.
Although there is a dedicated Oxford admissions website, OUSU should look at providing information of its own for potential applicants. This could be in the form of an information pack that is sent to all those thinking of applying, clearly outlining what is entailed in the application process. This would be complemented by an OUSU admission website that will provide an accessible platform to find college alternative prospectuses and information. There is no substitute to hearing first hand accounts of current students, and OUSU is in the best possible place both to provide this and complement it with further schemes.
The misconceptions that exist concerning Oxford will always serve to dissuade certain people from applying, and while there is an argument that the university needs to work alongside teachers to rectify this, OUSU can also play a role in this respect. Simply expanding Target Schools will not fully alleviate issues over access. OUSU has to actively talk to students from Scotland, Northern Ireland, the East Midlands and North East, and not simply encourage them to apply, but ask why it is they don’t want to in the first place. Too often the assumption is made that the application process discourages students, but from working on regional conferences and in schools I found that issues range from funding concerns right through to moving away from home. OUSU needs to talk to those not wishing to apply and allay their fears through a comprehensive access strategy.
With the upcoming Student Advice Service reforms within OUSU, perhaps it is time that the position of Access and Academic Affairs was examined. The current remit for the position is enormous; not only does it require coordinating access schemes and open days, but there is also a heavy burden of casework and academic policy reports. It would make sense to divide the position into separate VPs as part of the ongoing reforms: one for access and another for academic affairs. This would ensure that ideas and policies are not obscured by worries in a conflicting area.
The current access schemes in Oxford are fantastic in their scope and work, but it is not enough to sit back and argue that it is the job of the schools to catch up. There is certainly work to be done alongside teaching staff, but greater centralisation and coordination, with a reformed OUSU at the forefront will go a long way to help this effort.

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