The Higher Eduation Policy Institute’s suggestion of creating new colleges for under-represented groups is well-intentioned, but it misses the real root of Oxford’s access problem, and would only perpetuate socio-economic segregation. The misguided proposal implies that students from under-privileged backgrounds should be shunted off into separate spaces, whilst existing colleges continue to be woefully inadequate in their diversification and access programmes.
Oxbridge’s imbalanced intake is almost certainly not a result of insufficient spaces, but rather that they aren’t fairly used. Around 41% of Oxbridge’s intake is privately educated, and over 80% come from the top two social classes. 48% of offers go to students in the South East and London, and between 2010 and 2015, 13 Oxford colleges did not admit a single black student. The idea that simply providing a greater number of spaces through the establishment of new colleges would solve this verges on the nonsensical: this is more than evident in the admissions statistics. There are plenty of privileged applicants who currently miss out on Oxbridge places. What’s to say new colleges wouldn’t simply provide more places for them, rather than boosting student representation?
The alternative would be the somewhat disturbing possibility of these proposed new colleges being targeted solely at disadvantaged demographics. Placing these students apart from their more socially privileged peers, in colleges which would likely be less wealthy and more geographically distant than existing ones, is more grudging tokenism than real inclusion. If access solutions can be offered, they must not be limited to a few colleges, but put into place across the whole university.
This isn’t even an ‘if’ question: it has been done. Around 15 years ago, my own college, Mansfield, set out to improve its diversity and it has succeeded – over 90% of my year are state-educated, and this percentage is set to increase further. Financially, we are very much one of the least wealthy undergraduate colleges: the excuse that other colleges are too strapped for cash and resources to do anything doesn’t cut it. Mansfield is, as yet, an anomaly in the Oxbridge establishment, but the success of its access initiative proves similar progress can and must be made by other colleges.