Cherwell has learned that Varsity Education, criticised by members of the University last year, is continuing to off er a controversial £3,595 course and is advertising academics’ involvement without their knowledge or consent.
Varsity Education advertises itself on Twitter as being able to “hone your interview and application skills so you get into the University that you’ve always dreamt of,” as well as off ering “inside knowledge” if you enroll on their two-week course, which allows students to attend classes and workshops to develop “key skills”.
Cherwell published an article in February 2015 about the company, which was hosted by Pembroke College and which highlighted concerns over access to the University.
Pembroke is no longer involved with the company, although it continues to use photographs of Pembroke in its marketing and promotional video.
A spokesperson for Pembroke told Cherwell, “Pembroke expects all former clients of our conference and events business to update their publicity visuals to refl ect new locations as and when possible, and to remove all written references to Pembroke College on the termination of any agreement. We do not comment on the details of individual commercial relationships.”
St Cross College told Cherwell that it is considering hosting Varsity Education’s Oxford Summer course.
The College said in a statement, “Varsity Education is a potential commercial client of St Cross for summer 2016. Discussions have not yet been finalised. Our facilities are hired by them on a normal commercial basis, as with any other client, and St Cross is not involved in the organisation of their programmes.”
With regards to “inside knowledge”, Varsity Education lists the heads of the various subjects it off ers on its website, a number of whom are academics or tutors at both Oxford and Cambridge and whom it says “delivered key seminars to our students and had overall responsibility for the design of the course”.
When three of these “academic heads” from Oxford University were contacted, however, they suggested they were unaware of the extent of the position they held.
Dr Josephine van Zeben, a tutor in EU and Public Law at Worcester College listed as “Academic head” of the English Law course, told Cherwell, “I was not aware that my name, without my permission, was being used on the Varsity Education website… I have no link to Varsity Education in any capacity and have instructed them to remove my name from their website.
“My involvement with [Varsity Education] was restricted to providing four one-hour lectures on public law during a one-month period. At no point during that time did I speak to students about the admissions or interview process at Oxford. Nor would I have agreed to do so, if I had been asked to.”
Dr Lisa Walker, a tutorial fellow in Medical Sciences at Balliol, said, “I think the question here actually revolves around what the “Academic Heads” of the subjects actually know about the organisation. In my case, nothing. I had very little notice – I was asked to fill in as someone had apparently dropped out and they needed someone urgently.
“I confess to having been surprised to find my photo and blog on this website. What they have on there is not inaccurate – they have lifted it straight from the Balliol website.”
In addition to these, Dr Sally Bayley, an English tutor at Balliol and St Hugh’s listed as the “Academic head of English”, commented, “I only taught for the Access part of the course, in the fi nal week, where I spoke to kids from all over the country who had been given sponsored places. I can’t comment on anything else, I’m afraid, because I wasn’t part of it.”
On the issue of the company’s contract with Pembroke, James Gold, the director of Varsity Education, told Cherwell, “The contract between and Pembroke College was only ever an annual agreement. It is incorrect to say that either party terminated the contract. We use photos we’ve taken of our past courses to give prospective students a better idea of what to expect.”
“Most of our students come from overseas and haven’t visited Oxford previously. We don’t make any mention of Pembroke on our website and students are aware that we are not based in Pembroke in 2016.
“Our students do not usually have access to the expertise or admissions guidance provided to those studying at selective schools in the UK. Attending our course is one way in which overseas students can gain the same insight already offered to students studying at top UK schools.
“Many other education companies, most of which are run for-profit, operate similar programmes within Oxford colleges and have been doing so for some years.
“Varsity Education is a non-profit company limited by guarantee. This means that we do not have shareholders and we aren’t allowed to distribute profits. The company’s articles of association require us to promote British higher education internationally and to provide students from disadvantaged backgrounds with equal access opportunities.
“We achieve this through using the surplus made by the company to fund scholarship places which are open to academically gifted students from non-traditional Oxbridge backgrounds.
“We aim to make at least 25 per cent of the places on our courses available as fully-funded scholarships. Many of our scholarship students have gone on to successfully receive Oxbridge offers.”
A spokesperson for Oxford University commented, “Oxford University is aware that organisations approach our students and staff to work for them, and may use college premises (just as academic conferences and other summer events lease college rooms and facilities.)
“The University does not endorse any commercial operations or publications offering advice or training on our admissions process, nor do we guarantee the accuracy of any such company’s information.
“University admissions staff are always clear to emphasise to prospective students and parents that Oxford University provides an enormous amount of information, all for free, about the application and admissions process.
“This is the most up to date and accurate information students will be able to find, and we make every effort to answer any questions through Open Days, printed materials, the website, and our dedicated admissions enquiry line.”
At the time of publication, the Varsity Education website continued to display full profiles of the academics contacted by Cherwell.