The principal of Mansfield College, Helen Mountfield QC, called for Oxford University to take up to 90% of its students from state schools, in an interview with The Sunday Times last weekend.
Mountfield, who was educated at a comprehensive school, said: “I would like to see [the proportion of students] to be broadly representative of the society from which people come. That would be about 90%”
Denying that the policy of taking more state school applicants amounted to social engineering, Mountfield said: “What you’re trying to do is recognise some of the patterns of advantage of society and … find potential by trying to set those aside.”
She recalled a previous conversation with a judge, regarding positive discrimination for female lawyers wanting to join the bench, during her time as a QC.
“He said ‘You know, I think it would be dreadful for women. They would feel they were only there because they were women.’ And I said to him, ‘Does it undermine your self-confidence that you’re a white man? Do you ever think, maybe I’m only a judge because I’m a white man and if I was a woman I wouldn’t be here?’”
Mansfield leads the way in Oxford colleges in terms of state school admissions at 90% for this year. A quarter of students accepted are the first in their family to go to university.
Mountfield said the number of Mansfield students achieving first-class and 2:1 degrees increased after more state school educated students were admitted. Previous to this, Mansfield had been “at the bottom” of the Norrington Table.
“We have consistently gone up and this year we are fifth. It shows that we are … not saying let’s let in some poor kids as a charity case … but identifying cleverer people because we are looking more broadly at who might benefit from being here.”
Mountfield went on to say that admissions tutors take whether a teenager is from a poor area and if they are the first in their family to go to university into consideration during the application process.
“It might be the person with sparky ideas [of whom] you think ‘I can teach you to write like a dream. But what I can’t teach you is ideas.’ So we’re just trying to find the people who might be slightly fumbling for it, who haven’t been taken to the theatre all through childhood, or seen people reading broadsheet newspapers.”
Mountfield’s expression of support follows the announcement that the University made more than 69% of its undergraduate offers this year to students attending state schools, an increase of 4.6% on the previous year and a record high.
Dr Samina Khan, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at Oxford, said at the time: “We know that students from some backgrounds are not as well-represented at Oxford as they should be, and we are determined that this should change.
“Having taught in state schools during my career, I know the wealth of talent that lies there. We wish the students every success in their studies, and hope they flourish at Oxford.”
Mountfield’s statement comes in the face of criticism from some University figures.
A source high up in University admissions told The Sunday Telegraph last month: “The instructions we received were that we had to interview them as long as they met very basic standards – and some even failed those.
“My experience is that those candidates just don’t do very well. We call them to interview because we have to. They just do really badly and we reject them and it’s a waste of everyone’s time. But if this target of 25% is going to be met, we will have to start admitting some of these people.”