‘Comment is Free but Facts are Sacred’ The Guardian proclaims on its homepage. Nonetheless, facts appear to be anything but sacred when it comes to Oxbridge admissions. In her recently published article Sally Weale successfully managed to discredit The Guardian and whatever truth was left in The Guardian’s motto.
The key point of contention is Weale’s ignorant, or perhaps wilfully deceitful, use of statistics in her discussion of Oxford admissions. The title of Weale’s article proclaims ‘David Cameron’s Oxford college [Brasenose] admits fewest state schools applicants’.
Weale’s arguments is based on data taken from a report from Sutton Trust, which states that only 11 per cent of state school applicants to Brasenose win a place. This is the lowest proportion amongst any Oxbridge college. However, using this statistic to imply that Brasenose discriminates against state school applicants is entirely nonsensical. The reason Brasenose has the lowest acceptance rate for state school applicants is simply because it has the lowest acceptance rate for all applicants, with only 11 per cent of applicants, across both state and independent schools, gaining a place. Independent school applicants do have a marginally higher success rate, with 13 per cent getting a place.
On the other hand, Weale portrays Somerville as a paragon of virtue, with a 30 per cent acceptance rate for state school applicants. However, an average of 36 per cent of independent school applicants were successful in their application between 2011 and 2014. The discrepancy in the success rates between state school and independent school applicants is therefore greater at Somerville than at Brasenose. This completely contradicts Weale’s claim that Brasenose is uniquely inhospitable to state school applicants.
One has to wonder why Weale distorted the statistics to pick on Brasenose. A clue may lie in the title of Weale’s article, that refers to Brasenose as ‘David Cameron’s Oxford college’. To a cynical eye, it could appear that Weale is attempting to associate Cameron with elitism and discrimination, and paint him as a hypocrite in light of his recent challenge to Oxford University to improve its access and diversity. The article perhaps implies that Cameron deliberately chose to go to the most classist and privileged college as a result of his ingrained prejudice.
It is a shame for Weale to resort to such cheap political point scoring, particularly at a time when the Conservative government is enacting many controversial policies, such as abolishing student grants and striking sweetheart tax deals with multinational corporations. These areas are fertile ground for genuine intelligent criticism of this government and its policies, however Weale seems to only be able to strike on a much lower ground, labelling Cameron as an out-of-touch elitist.
Weale’s article smears Brasenose’s hard work. As stated by Jess Freedman, former Admission Rep of the college, “Brasenose is involved in more Access Events than any other college, has more prospective applicants visit the college on Open Days than any other college, has more students helping out with Access and Admissions than any other college and has the highest Satisfaction Rate amongst students, and that is exactly why we have the most applicants.”
She was the girl that showed my terrified self around during interviews when I applied, and made me feel welcome and comfortable in an alien environment in a daunting situation.
What hurt me personally as a Brasenose student was Weale’s comment, ‘critics say Brasenose is turning down strong state school candidates who are good enough to win places elsewhere in favour of candidates from independent schools.’ Leaving aside the mysterious identity of said critics, I have witnessed first-hand the effort and dedication of tutors in selecting the best possible applicants. Such a comment is nothing more than an attack on the professionalism of the admission tutors at Brasenose, which is something that cannot be ignored.
Nonetheless, we must not lose sight of the actual problems of access at Oxford, Cambridge and many other universities too. Independent school pupils are still greatly overrepresented in our student body; they make up 14 per cent of sixth form students but 44 per cent of students from UK schools at the University. This is unacceptable, and a complex problem that requires a wide-ranging response. Schools, the government and the universities themselves all have important roles to play in tackling the issue, and collaboration is key. What is certainly not needed is simplistic, misleading and ultimately inflammatory rhetoric from commentators such as Weale.