In May 2020, Oxford celebrated as the proportion of state-educated students at the university hit 62.3%. In a triumphant foreword to the Annual Admissions Statistical Report, Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson described this as “steady progress towards diversifying the makeup of our student body”. This summer’s A-level fiasco brought fresh gains: 67.8% of incoming students are from state backgrounds, exceeding the University’s latest target.
Yet as the dust settles on this most recent, though unplanned success, one group remains chronically under-represented at Oxford. Scottish schools are experiencing no such gains. In 2018, 13 English private schools sent more students to Oxford than the entire Scottish state school system, which sent 16 students. The situation has not improved much since.
The figures for 2019 bore evidence of similar failings, with just 109 applications, 16 offers, and 11 final acceptances for state school applicants. 2020’s statistics, whilst not representing a new low, do not show significant signs of improvement either. Only 104 applications were made by state-educated students this year, resulting in just 19 offers.
The record for Scottish state representation is clearly abysmal, but it isn’t just state schools facing a disadvantage. Independent representation is also poor. As in the case of state schools, 2019 was a difficult year; only 127 applications were made, resulting in 19 offers and 17 acceptances, a significant decline from the previous year (155 applications, 27 acceptances). 2020 promises to return to the not-so-heady heights of 2018, with 152 applications and 31 offers.
Of course, small sample sizes create large variations that aren’t necessarily meaningful. However, Scottish representation isn’t showing any signs of significant improvement, unlike the representation of other traditionally disadvantaged groups (according to the University’s report). It is also feared by those students involved in access initiatives that a particularly poor year for Scottish representation might trigger a permanent decline in the numbers applying and therefore succeeding in gaining a place.
The Cydeside Project, a student-run access organisation for Scottish pupils, is demanding that Oxford do more to attract Scottish pupils. Founder Michael McGrade stated, “I refuse to believe there were so few capable of making it to Oxford. If Scottish outreach was taken seriously by the University, I am certain we would be looking at triple digits.”
‘Access’ is one of those things that most of us love to talk about in abstract terms. We might all feel a sense of obligation to help, but few of us are necessarily equipped to talk about access in any great depth and many of us lack a strong personal connection to the ‘issues’ being discussed.
Puzzled by the decline in applications from both Scotland’s state and independent schools in recent years, I interviewed some current students on their experiences. Why is it that Oxford does not seem to hold the same attraction in Scotland that makes English state and independent students apply in droves?
It is perhaps important to set these conversations in the wider context of access criticism. Discussions of access in Oxford have been criticised for being too impersonal and numbers focused. This was undoubtedly an issue encountered in the Scottish case. More important than this, it has been suggested, is creating an environment that helps those targeted individuals to thrive.
From the limited number of people that I have spoken to, it seems that the University environment itself is not the problem. More pertinent in Scotland is a false perception of Oxford as unattainable, alienating and unaffordable. This has gone unchallenged in schools and by the University itself.
In Scottish schools, Oxford is going unnoticed. Students and teachers don’t commonly see the University as a viable pathway out of school. The general consensus among the interviewees was that the University has no real reputation aside from vague and discouraging stereotypes.
A lack of familiarity with sending students to Oxbridge lies at the heart of this problem. Gerry, my first interviewee, explained that “when I was applying, certainly in the memory of all the teachers there hadn’t been someone who had successfully applied before, so, for me, my only exposure to Oxbridge came from sweeping generalisations. Going into it I had the perception that it was going to be filled with quite bookish, very academic people who were passionate about their subject, in the way I didn’t necessarily think people were passionate about subjects in the school I went to.”
One student added that “people at my school thought that Oxbridge was pretty much full of people who were very posh and/or insanely smart. Barely anyone thought about applying because they just didn’t think that they were the sort of people who Oxbridge were looking for.” Zaynab, a law student, also feared that “people are going to be different; people are going to be rich, posh, from private schools. People won’t understand me.”
So far, the University has struggled to make much of an impact even in some of Scotland’s biggest schools. For Peter, who attended the largest state school in Scotland, “there was almost no talk of Oxford at all.” He remembered stumbling across one of the University’s outreach efforts: “there was actually a talk in my school for anybody who wanted to apply to Oxford from Glasgow state schools. I was the only person from my school who was there.”
Chance encounters such as these would emerge as a dominant theme in these interviews. Without them, those in the state system were unlikely to get a sense of what the University could offer them. Peter explained that “in Scotland, it’s not really pushed the way it is in England. A lot of the big English schools will quantify their success in how many Oxbridge places they have. That happens maybe in the private schools in Scotland, but definitely not in the state schools.” To generalise, “that helping hand just probably won’t be there in state schools in Scotland. There’s no sort of culture where you’re to aim for Oxbridge.”
Being overlooked by bright students is probably not a problem that the University is familiar with. As Peter’s experience shows, the University’s more traditional approach to selling itself, (i.e. talks in schools and UCAS fairs), does not do enough to seize the attention of students who are otherwise untouched by the allure of Oxbridge.
Another limiting factor of the number of applications made by Scottish pupils is the reputation of the country’s own prestigious universities. Peter explained, “you’re more pushed towards high tariff courses in Scotland like Medicine, Dentistry and Law, that sort of thing…We wouldn’t consider Oxford and Cambridge ‘our’ two best universities. We’ve got great universities here, why would you apply [to Oxbridge]?”
So how can Oxford compete with Scotland’s impressive universities? Most important, according to the interviewees, is the “normalisation” of the University and its students. This is where those chance encounters and the personal touch becomes so important. Emerging as somewhat of a folk hero in this investigation was St Hugh’s Scottish Principal, Dame Elish Angiolini. “We have a Scottish principal at Hugh’s who was actually one of the people that I spoke to on the Open Day, which I think certainly was part of the reason that I applied to Hugh’s,” said Gerry. “Having that sort of relatable figure encourages you that it’s a worthwhile thing to pursue.”
Those students who came from state schools were reliant on distant connections. Peter stated, “the reason I applied to St Hugh’s was because one of my mum’s friend’s son had gone to study PPE there like 15 years ago. Another one of my mum’s friends who had been to Oxford phoned me and we talked through the interviews together.”
Gerry suggested that this reliance on making connections or lucky encounters was forced by the unpreparedness of teachers: “In terms of their willingness and their enthusiasm for helping they were absolutely brilliant, but I think one of the problems is the application process, as I see it, probably isn’t transparent enough at the moment. The consequence of that is if you have access to other people who have applied to Oxford successfully, I think you gain a reasonably significant advantage throughout the process.” Zaynab also found that “it makes such a difference if you know someone who’s already applied.”
Even independent schools in Scotland can find the idea of applying too daunting. “No one had a great understanding of what the whole process was like or what it would be like to actually go there,” said one interviewee. A significant barrier in this case was the reluctance of the school to damage its own reputation, fearing that an Oxford offer was simply unattainable for too many of its students. “Our school didn’t want to get a reputation of getting lots of people to apply because they knew lots of people were going to get rejected. They didn’t want to be a school that a) pushed it really hard or b) had lots of people fail to get in. So, they almost tried to get people not to apply.”
Frustrating for all of the interviewees was the contrast between their teachers’ willingness to help and their ability to help. Zaynab recalled “I had a lot of support in the sense of ‘you can do it!’ but I didn’t have a lot of resources. In the last 10 years, our school sent maybe one person to Oxford. So, the only person I was directed to was an English teacher, but it was probably the most useless experience. He was lovely, but I remember telling him about the LNAT and he asked me ‘oh, what’s that?’”
One interviewee described this as “information asymmetry” between the University’s understanding of its application process and schools’ understanding of it, suggesting that more transparency around the decision-making process might be the solution. “A lot of it boils down to a communication issue and maybe doing more to ensure that it doesn’t actually matter where you’re applying from. I think the uni is taking great steps to, in terms of once you get to interview, to take account of different backgrounds. The tutors tend to do a good job of accounting for those differences in terms of your overall education up to that point, but certainly the info you get before that point varies wildly.”
Poor communication even turned out to be a significant problem when it came to the elephant in the room: tuition fees. Scotland’s commitment to free tuition gives its universities a competitive edge, especially if the English system is poorly explained. Tuition fees have traditionally occupied a central place in conversations about access to higher education. Yet, in our abstract and generalising conversations about access we perhaps forget that the issue of fees remains a highly personal one. It falls upon the shoulders of each individual student to weigh up the costs and the benefits of university education, and, in the Scottish case, the information needed to make these assessments isn’t as widely disseminated as it ought to be.
Coming to these interviews I had expected fees to be a dominant, even overbearing part of the conversation. The idea that English tuition fees intimidate and discourage the brightest Scottish students now seems overblown (or even snobbish). Founder of the Clydeside Project Michael McGrade is wary of treating fees as a major factor in discouraging pupils. He told Cherwell, “this argument always stings me as a little patronising…It’s a pay as you earn system and prospective applicants, wherever they’re from in the UK, are bright enough to understand that. Likewise, simply because their mum and dad didn’t come here in the 80s does not mean a prospective applicant will not recognise the extraordinary opportunity that being a student here represents.”
In fact, the English university system as a whole also has some benefits that the Scottish system can’t afford to offer. McGrade stated, “we cannot help the fact that the standard of education at England’s ancient universities far outstrips that of Scotland’s…the zero tuition fee model in Scotland comes at a price. Holyrood will only give a university £1800 per student which means fewer contact hours in larger groups.”
Similarly, whilst the interviewees had all grappled with the idea of tuition fees to differing degrees, there was a general consensus that fees present the biggest problem when not fully explained or understood. “Unless you’re aware of the very unique benefits that we’re fortunate enough to get as Oxbridge students, then it can just seem a lot easier to stay at home,” said Gerry. “A really common question you get [from people in Scotland] is why are you paying the money, which I think is symptomatic of the lack of knowledge of the system. I can see why if you come from a certain economic background that if that’s not made clear to you, the idea of taking on an extra 30k of debt is not something that’s going to be appealing.”
For most then, fees present a problem when the system is little understood. If it wants to improve its access record in Scotland, Oxford will not only have to establish itself as a viable pathway out of school, but make sure that pupils fully understand what they would be signing up for.
The University is by no means ignoring Scotland. Yet, as mentioned above, the more traditional approach that works in England will need to be adapted to suit Scottish needs. In McGrade’s opinion “The University desperately needs to bankroll one of the colleges to act as a link college for Scotland.“ In response to a Freedom of Information request sent this Summer, Oxford informed Cherwell that St John’s College has been tasked with hosting in-bound visits to the university. However, the main access and outreach efforts of the College target specific parts of London.
In fact, most of the university’s Scottish outreach is managed centrally by the Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach Team (UAO). McGrade claimed “it’s been nearly a year since the University Outreach Office stepped foot in Scotland.” Those (independent) students I spoke to who had experienced outreach events in Scotland found them to be woefully inadequate, exposing the general deficiency faced by Scottish schools when it comes to interacting with the university.
The few interviewees who had experienced such events found them to be dominated by independent schools and run by well-meaning, but ineffective admin staff. One reflected on “how utterly useless those days were”, complaining “they were run by people who, now you look back on it, didn’t know what they were talking about. There were no Oxford students, there were no Oxford tutors, there were no members of faculty. An actual student’s perspective is so much more helpful than someone from admin.”
Among my interviewees, UNIQ turned out to be similarly disappointing. McGrade commented: “My experience has been that UNIQ does not seem to have made much headway at all in Scotland and this must be from a failure to advertise it. After all, it’s quite a way to come to Oxford from Scotland and often prohibitively expensive to do so.” This sentiment was shared by a number of the interviewees, who claimed they had not been aware of UNIQ or simply found out about it too late to apply. One student expressed that it was also difficult to find information about the University’s extensive options for financial support.
Information obtained by a Freedom of Information request revealed that in 2019, 9 participants were domiciled in Scotland. This resulted in 4 applications and 3 offers.
Tutors appear to be an under-used resource when it comes to busting the myths that surround Oxford. For those able to attend, in-person open days provide students and tutors with an opportunity to make this human connection. For Gerry, “the chance to meet tutors and have informal conversations who were there sort of demystified the situation in that you realised quite quickly that these people weren’t that different from your teachers at school. There wasn’t an oppressive or overt intelligence in the conversations as they were showing you around…For me, I think it probably did have a bearing on whether I applied at that stage because I was undecided when I went down.”
He added, “Making those sorts of events more accessible regardless of geography is probably a good step access-wise.” It is yet to be seen whether the more accessible online open days will have a significant impact on Scottish applications.
Not all the University’s initiatives are faltering, however. Particularly promising are those that seek to re-inject access and outreach with the much-needed personal touch. Of course, it’s not just the University that has a responsibility to improve representation, and student and alumni initiatives remain absolutely central to “normalising” Oxford. Exeter College recently trialled the East Lothian Project, a summer school for 12 pupils first put forward by a Doctoral student at the college. The costs were split in 2019 between the local authority, who funded travel, and the college, who covered the costs of the stay itself. Whilst forced to go online for the time being, it is hoped that the project will secure permanent funding to ensure annual visits in the future.
One interviewee also commended Christ Church for hosting Scottish pupils for the open day, with the provision of free accommodation and food. “The college was actually really helpful and friendly as they organised a lot of fun things for us to do in the time that we were there. However, the train journey down was 8 hours and quite expensive so this could be a barrier for many Scottish state school students who would be interested…it is a real shame that many Scottish students are unable to attend the open days.”
Moreover, the ability of students to make an impact should not be understated. An important first step is talking to students about their options. Gerry told me that “I feel I have an obligation, as someone who benefited from a chance conversation here and a little nudge there, to try and raise awareness in my community and in my own school that this is a viable pathway.” For him, this means overcoming the natural squeamishness that comes from talking about one’s Oxford experience. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be careful in terms of your self-congratulation, but there’s a time and a place when it becomes quite important…offering to go back and speak to students that are considering Oxbridge allows you to have those conversations in a way that isn’t self-glorifying or inappropriate.”
Personalised and friendly communication is certainly a core component of the Clydeside Project. With 100 Scottish pupils now being mentored, it is certainly making a difference. McGrade told Cherwell: “One school in Glasgow we worked with last year had never previously sent a student to Oxbridge. On offers day I got the news that three of their students had received offers from Oxford.”
Peter’s work for the Project involves targeting the most influential figures in education: headteachers, deputy heads, UCAS coordinators, and others involved in pastoral care. McGrade believes that promoting the University among these “gatekeepers” of education is a crucial part of the Clydeside Project’s mission.
The criticism of ‘access’ at Oxford is well-founded but importantly, not without practical solutions. The enduring positivity of those involved in access initiatives has proved, I hope, that the future is bright. ‘Access’ is not a vague goal we talk about in abstract terms, an obsessive numbers-fest, or a box-ticking exercise. Rather it is a complex process of trial-and-error, something that pushes whole institutions to reform whilst meeting the personal needs of individuals. The University may be an easy target for frustrated students, and indeed a healthy degree of criticism is sometimes necessary. But it is worth remembering how fruitful the collaborative efforts have been in the Scottish case. Oxford is a place that our interviewees love, a place that they are grateful for, and a place that they want to help other people reach. This passion, enthusiasm, and personal investment must occupy a central position in the University’s efforts going forward.
Many thanks to those who offered to be interviewed and to the Clydeside Project for their help.
Please note these figures are close approximations (for example, data is filtered to include those domiciled in Scotland)