The new chief of the government’s university access watchdog has suggested that Oxford and Cambridge’s separate application process could be deterring less advantaged students from applying.

Les Ebdon, who formally became head of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) on Monday 3 September, spoke to The Times newspaper in an interview in which he set out the agenda in his new role.

Looking to challenge admissions at the most selective institutions, Ebdon made particular mention of the ancient universities and their collegiate systems of education.

He claimed that such a system “can be difficult to understand if you are not initiated into it”, adding that these concerns had been acknowledged.

“I visited both Oxford and Cambridge and they are aware of the potential barriers of the complexities their admissions system can put up,” he said.

However, Ebdon praised efforts made by both universities, particularly in promoting their state school summer schools, which have helped boost entrance prospects for attendees.

A spokesperson for Oxford University said: “It is absolutely in our interests to attract and select the brightest students, regardless of background. We take many steps to achieve this aim, including offering financial support this year for the poorest students – the most generous of any university in the country.”

Lawrence Houldsworth, a Christ Church historian and former Oxford summer school attendee, is now a committee officer for Oxford’s prolific Target Schools scheme. He told Cherwell: “I can’t understate how incredibly hard Oxford tries to dismantle the misleading stereotypes that it has accumulated over centuries.

“The college system here is, actually, what makes the experience so amazing – frankly, it should attract disadvantaged students to apply. You’re living in a uniquely small and intimate academic environment, which at the same time is a close-knit community in which you develop strong social bonds.

“Students always ask me which college to apply to. I say, remember, it doesn’t matter in the end: you’re still applying to Oxford. The college system can receive too much unnecessary fuss, and should really pose no barrier at all.”

 

“I am prepared to be a tough negotiator”

Professor Ebdon, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, was appointed in February amid divided opinion after remarks he made criticising the dominance of Oxbridge in UK university rankings.

Conservative critics accused him of ‘social engineering’ and undermining the education system.

Current statistics reveal that seven children from the wealthiest 20 per cent of households are admitted for every student admitted from the poorest 40 per cent.

Ebdon voiced his support for the use of contextual data in admissions, and will place an emphasis on visible progress and proven strategies.

He has indicated restraint in deploying OFFA’s new powers to slap on a £500,000 fine or cap fees at £6,000 for lagging institutions. However, he did not rule it out altogether if it protected students.

“If a university made a promise to students that it didn’t fulfil – promising them a certain level of bursary or scholarship which it then withdrew, or something like that – then I think without doubt it would be right to introduce a sanction.”

He insisted that he would not interfere with any admissions systems, but asserted, “Under my leadership, OFFA will expect universities to set themselves more challenging targets. 

“I don’t have difficulty in relating to the full range of universities. I am quite prepared to be a tough negotiator. I am also prepared to be a strong supporter.”

In comments to The Daily Telegraph, Ebdon pronounced the task facing Oxbridge to be “more stark” than for other universities.

OFFA approved universities’ 2013-4 access agreements in late July, including Oxford’s

One section states: “Oxford’s admissions process is focussed on identifying an applicant’s ability and potential… decisions will be based on academic factors, with the aim of admitting the best candidates in each subject rather than meeting predetermined quotas of students from particular backgrounds.”