A third of Oxford Opportunity Bursaries awarded to current first years were given to students from independent schools, Cherwell can reveal.

This comes just weeks after tutors at the University’s Congregation called for a “radical” overhaul to Oxford’s approach to Access Schemes, which many tutors feel still do not go far enough to reach students beyond a certain “cultural and social elite.”

The University had not intended to publish the statistic that one third of bursary recipients are educated within the independent sector, but Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, recently disclosed this figure during comments he made at a Teach First presentation in Somerville College last week.

The statistics were later confirmed by the University Press Office, who stated that “Of students coming to Oxford University with household incomes under £25k, who then automatically qualify for a full Oxford Opportunity Bursary, 31.6% are from schools in the independent sector.”

The University admitted that the bursaries are “automatic, based on income” and they are “blind to all other factors.”

This statistic carries implications for Oxford’s access schemes. Some tutors have expressed concern that Oxford is not going far enough in targeting its access policies at those who need it most.

Bernard Sufrin, Fellow and Tutor in Computer Science at Worcester College, said, “While quality education in schools is rationed by price it’s not really surprising that low-income families that believe in the importance of education will do their best to find their way past the rationing machinery; and who can blame the tiny numbers of such families who can do so, for taking advantage of every available scholarship, grant, or bursary?

“But these individual ‘rags-to-Oxbridge’ narratives allow our ruling elites to continue pretending that any poor child can succeed academically as long as they have the innate talent.” 

Sufrin continued, “Our ruling elites have never put enough resources into building an education system which provides appropriate pathways for the talents of every individual to be nurtured to their full potential. So taking the message ‘think Oxbridge’ at people who hadn’t is never going to affect the educational chances of more than a handful; and I think we need to do a whole lot more than that.”

The University stress that bursaries are “simply a function of household income”.

The Press Office maintain that “the purpose of bursaries is to assist with living costs for those whose parents won’t be able to help them out in that regard.”

A spokesperson said, “You get [bursaries] automatically based on your household income. The University does not ‘choose’ who to give them to”.

John Parrington, a Fellow and Tutor in Physiological Sciences at Worcester College, also voiced concern that Oxford’s undergraduates are still being selected from a narrow pool of applicants.

He said, “I think is the central problem with the whole fees and bursaries question. The big difficulty with having huge fees compensated for by bursaries to the ‘deserving poor’ is that one will inevitably get into these debates about who is most deserving of such bursaries.

“There’s a danger in assuming that even if Oxford did dramatically increase its intake from state schools, if these are the highly selective type, it could still mean a huge proportion of school students out there in Britain at non-selective state schools are not really getting a look in when it comes to getting to Oxford.

Parrington continued, “Oxford still has a long way to go really to reach out to students from less privileged backgrounds. It would make a huge difference if we could go back to the more ‘level playing field’ that I had the benefit of when I was an applicant to Cambridge, and without which it is doubtful that I would be sitting here in Oxford as a University Lecturer and Tutor.”
A spokesperson from the University Press Office was quick to stress that these statistics merely demonstrate Oxford’s commitment to recruiting the best and most able students.
She said, “At most independent schools, bursaries and scholarships are given on the basis of strong academic talent as well as need.
“People on low incomes who have been supported through independent school are therefore by definition likely to be particularly able, and therefore well represented at top universities.”

Hannah Cusworth, a third year History and Politics student, gave an impassioned speech before Congregation about her own background, where she mentioned not only how an Oxford Opportunity Bursary had enabled her to come here, but how financial assistance had allowed her to go to an independent school.

Cusworth said, “I was surprised to learn that a third of full Oxford Opportunity Bursaries go to students who come from the independent sector.

“I suppose this shows that not everyone who goes to private school is from a very well-off family. A lot of students educated in the state sector

who are now at Oxford went to very high achieving selective state schools.
“But I still believe that, one the whole, the state/independent divide says a lot about the educational advantage and support that student likely received.

“Almost every student with AAA is applying to Oxbridge so we need to work more closely with the more disadvantaged state schools whose students have the grades and are applying to Oxford but who miss out on a place.

“Bursaries should ensure that any student who is bright enough to come to Oxford, whatever school they went to, isn’t put off by the costs.”

Alex Bulfin, OUSU VP for Access and Academic Affairs, admitted that given “national statistics on progression from school to university and elite university”, it was “self-evident” that students from independent schools, will have been more exposed and encouraged to pursue higher education at top universities such as Oxford, than students from state schools.

Asked whether bursaries should be used to encourage those who have been educated within the state sector, Bulfin said, “The primary aim of bursaries is not recruitment but student support. I think there are far more significant cultural barriers that prevent people from making an initial application or even picking up the prospectus to see what bursaries we offer.”

Bulfin shifted the debate away from access, to one of financial support. He said, “The primary purpose of bursaries is to ensure people have enough money to live on while at university and that no-one has to decline their place for financial reasons. To that extent they are less about access than student support.

“However some enhanced bursaries, such as the current Oxford Opportunity Bursary, also give students the possibility of reducing the amount they have to borrow from the Government, which does give them an element of access and student recruitment.”
Oxford’s access schemes have come under close scrutiny recently, as many feel the rise in tuition fees could deter bright students who are from less financially able backgrounds, if they are not encouraged to apply by their school or family.

Oxford are expected to announce the level at which they will set their fees for students beginning university in 2012 in early March. It is believed that Oxford will follow Cambridge’s lead in raising fees to the highest cap of £9,000 per year.