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Uni ‘spends £108,000’ to recruit each additional low-income student

Recent analysis also suggests no connection between the proportion of students from poorer postcodes and final exam scores

Oxford University spends over £100,000 to recruit each additional student from a poorer background in its annual admissions, according to a recent analysis of Oxford’s access efforts.

The figures, published by Lady Margaret Hall principal and former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, reveal that Oxford’s “cost of acquisition” for each extra student from a low-income area since 2009 is £108,000.

Between 2009 and 2016, Oxford admitted about ten extra students from areas defined as “financially stretched” or regions of “urban adversity” by the Office for Students, while spending at least £14m per year on efforts to improve access as required by higher education regulators.

While some of the £14m is spent on bursaries for students already admitted, the £108,000 figure has been calculated by taking the amount spent on outreach activities and staff per year and then dividing it by the average number of extra students admitted each year.

According to the University, about 20% of all UK postcodes fall into this disadvantaged category, while about 15% of students who meet minimum entry requirements for Oxford (three or more As at A levels) come from these areas.

This means there is a national pool of about 5,000 low-income school-leavers qualified to come to Oxford every year; however, in 2015/16 only 220 ended up attending.

By 2019/20, Oxford hopes to have 9.5% of its 2,600 UK undergraduate entries be low-income students, making for a total of 243 low-income students across the undergraduate student body – just 23 students up from the 220 considered baseline.

Rusbridger writes: “Twenty three works out at less than one per college. To Oxford this is ‘challenging.’

“For comparison, Winchester College (£40,000 fees) sent 24 students to Oxford – about one in three of its Year 13 cohort – in 2017; St Paul’s (£37,719) sends nearly 40.”

Students from low-income postcodes are not the only ones being targeted by outreach schemes. In addition, Oxford focuses on two other primary measures of disadvantage: the number of students from under-represented schools and the number of students from areas of low participation in higher education. The University also has targets for students with disabilities.

Taking into account all three of the disadvantage metrics, while compensating for students who may fall under more than one indicator, Rusbridger calculates that Oxford formally aims to increase the total number of less advantaged students by 90 by 2019/20, just shy of the combined tally of Eton and Westminster students admitted in 2017/18 – 94.

Professor Martin Williams, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education at Oxford University, told Cherwell: “As Alan says, the University cares passionately about having a fair and accessible admissions system.

“Our outreach spending has several purposes, including widening interest in higher education generally among children from primary age upwards. Presenting this spending simply as a cost per additional widening-participation student admitted to Oxford doesn’t reflect everything it achieves. For example, our work locally with IntoUniversity is dramatically improving entry to all universities among students from Oxford’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

“We have a range of targets for improving access, with 40% of our UK undergraduates now coming from the groups we aim at through outreach. That said, and as Alan rightly points out, more needs to be done.

“We will shortly be setting a further set of demanding targets to ensure Oxford education is open to talented students of all backgrounds. Alan’s article is a welcome contribution to the debate around this.

“Our colleges are key to this and we welcome the commitment and innovation that colleges, including Alan’s, are showing on the vital question of diversifying our student intake.”

Part of the blame for colleges’ sustained reliance on students from private schools is attributed to competition caused by the Norrington Table, which annually ranks colleges by final degree results.

However, statistical analysis currently under way at the Oxford Student Union suggests no connection between the proportion of students from poorer postcodes and final exam scores.

Norrington table ranking % students from poorer postcodes
St John’s University College
Magdalen Mansfield
St Catherine’s Oriel
Merton Jesus College
New College Merton
Jesus College St Peter’s
Brasenose St John’s
Wadham Worcester
Balliol Balliol
Trinity Brasenose
Christ Church Pembroke
Oriel St Hilda’s
St Hilda’s Corpus Christi
Worcester Lincoln
Corpus Christi Wadham
St Peter’s Queen’s College
University College St Anne’s
Exeter Hertford
Queen’s College Christ Church
Mansfield Lady Margaret Hall
Lady Margaret Hall New College
Somerville Somerville
Keble St Catherine’s
St Anne’s Trinity
Pembroke St Hugh’s
Lincoln Magdalen
Hertford Keble
St Hugh’s Exeter
St Edmund Hall St Edmund Hall

Source: Alan Rusbridger 

Colleges such as St John’s, Merton, and Balliol, place in the top ten in both tables.

Warden of Wadham College, Ken Macdonald, is cited by Rusbridger as supporting contextualised admissions, which vary entry requirements according to students’ circumstances.

Macdonald said: “We have to recognise that people in failing schools with difficult socio-economic backgrounds who get themselves in a position to make a competitive application have achieved something extraordinary.

“I mean, someone who’s got an A and two Bs from a crap comprehensive in Hull is quite capable of being as clever, if not cleverer, than someone who got three A*s at Westminster… I think that’s just a kind of basic recognition that people still struggle with.”

Rusbridger’s figures come after news of an Oxford graduate launching a nonprofit aimed at tackling the “structural inequalities” associated with both Oxford and Cambridge. Access Oxbridge hopes to connect 200 disadvantaged students seeking to apply to Oxbridge with current or former students at the two universities by the end of October.

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