Oxford faces serious questions over its admissions policy and, given lower acceptance of BME applications (13 per cent vs 25 per cent for non BME) and private school influence (they comprise 7 per cent of students at secondary level but supply 50 per cent of Oxford entrants), rightly so. But both Oxford and Cambridge also possess a rich reserve of talented individuals ready to take on such challenges, as shown in a joint event held by OxPolicy and Cambridge’s Wilberforce Society last Saturday.
OxPolicy presented three studies; overcoming racial inequality, identifying the major access issues for applicants, and the desirability of contextual admissions. The first involved interviews with BME members of the university, half of whom felt ethnicity affected the administration process (although, notably, most were more concerned with the state/ private divide). The recommendation here was to increase outreach to socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, which tend to contain disproportionate numbers of BME students, whilst heightening support targeted at helping them once they arrive at Oxford.
The second study involved surveying a number of schools classified as disadvantaged by Ofsted, to work out what pupils thought of as the main impediments to access. Key problems included a lack of access to information about the complex admissions process, coupled with the deterrent effect of university accommodation and travel costs. Policy recommendations involved increasing the transparency of often byzantine applications and bursary programmes, whilst subsidising travel for those living far from Oxford.
The final study concerned contextualising admissions. This is already employed to a certain extent by Oxford, which flags applicants for recommendation for interviews on the basis of disadvantaging factors (such as care status and education). The problem, as diagnosed by OxPolicy, is that these students still need to have basic AAA predicted grades to receive an interview, excluding those who excel in especially poor quality schools.
Throughout these three studies, a running theme was the pernicious effect of the negative portrayal of Oxford as an elitist and unwelcoming institution. This message, delivered to students by both the media and teachers at some state schools, demands extensive outreach programmes to counteract it.
The Wilberforce Society, Cambridge’s own student political think-tank, rounded off the talk with two quick presentations. The first recommended instituting pre-16 access programmes and women’s only summer schools in order to encourage more female STEM applications.
The second proposed developing an informative guide to dispel myths about Oxbridge in order to give advice about how to practice for interviews and entrance examinations to those who are not fortunate enough to receive it from their school or social circle.
The event was at once sobering and inspiring. On the one hand, it set out the significant challenges that still lie in the path of genuine equity in admissions. But on the other it showed students refusing to merely sit and shake their heads from the stands, but coming in to bat for their less fortunate counterparts themselves. For this, and much else, OxPolicy and The Wilberforce Society must be commended.