There has been an increase in applicants to Oxford. In 2008 a record high of over 15,000 students applied for approximately 3,000 places. However, the University is still struggling to attract students from poorer backgrounds despite spending millions on outreach schemes.
Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, praised the 12% increase on the previous year. He emphasised that efforts are being made to “make sure the process is as transparent as possible.”
He said, “In the last year, alongside doing over 1,000 outreach events, we have run sessions around the country for teachers and guidance advisors to demystify the admissions process so that they can encourage their most able students to apply.”
Oxford is under pressure to increase its intake from state schools. Gordon Brown has previously said that the Oxford admissions procedure is “more reminiscent of the old boy network and the old school tie than genuine justice in our society”.
Independent schools educate only 7% of the population but produce over a third of Oxford applicants. Crucially, they represent 44% of admissions, making an applicant from the independent sector 30% more likely to be accepted than a student from a maintained institution.
James Turner, Policy Director at the educational charity The Sutton Trust, suggested that popular misconceptions of the University might be responsible for the shortage of state school applicants.
“Universities need to work earlier on to break down some of the cultural barriers that prevent students from thinking that they’re going to fit in at Oxford. We’ve found that some teachers, especially at the poorest state schools, actively discourage their bright students from applying to Oxbridge.”
James Gillard, a fresher at Jesus College, attended “a bog-standard comprehensive school in South Wales” where “most people left school at GCSE level.” He said about Oxford, “my friends thought it was just intimidating. Really high standards and stereotypes of the English upper class.” He noted that teachers at his school struggled to support his application process.
“Students may be encouraged to apply but I don’t think Oxford is sending out the right information to schools and teachers. My head of year was not familiar with the Oxford application process at and I had to actively pursue it on my own. Applying to Oxford is just not part of the mindset of the comprehensive schoolteacher, let alone most of the students.”
The University has been keen to shed its elitist image with a series of new initiatives. Admissions tutors now take into account an applicant’s social background before deciding whether to offer them an interview while the additional £10 ‘Oxford application fee’ has been abolished.
James Turner argues Oxford should increase its role in the whole learning system: “There is a role for Universities to play in education outreach all the way down the education chain. Cambridge have talked about a foundation year, working on the idea that a student from a poorer background has showed potential but is not quite up to the mark, giving them an extra year’s tuition so they can start an undergraduate course.
Turner discouraged placing two much emphasis on state school figures. “We need to look beyond that to the lower social classes and kids from non-privileged backgrounds. It’s about aspirations but it’s also about attainment – unfortunately there are not as many students from poorer backgrounds getting three A-grades at A-level.”