Oxford will consider socioeconomic data in PhD applicants, as the University looks to improve access to postgraduate courses. Tutors across departments use contextual data in undergraduate admissions, but this is the first time a similar approach will be taken for DPhil candidates.

Admissions staff will consider information such as whether UK applicants received free school meals at secondary school when shortlisting for interview. The new scheme will cover five doctoral training programmes across the sciences and medicine, starting with applications for 2021 entry.  

Stuart Conway, Professor of Organic Chemistry, told the Times Higher Education magazine: “Some students are working to support themselves throughout university. They will be on an upward trajectory if they are applying to us, but they may not have seen the full results [of what they can achieve].”

Gail Preston, Director of the Interdisciplinary Bioscience doctoral programme training, added that socio-economic data may level the playing field for applicants unable to take up research placements: “Many applicants will spend their summers going to different research groups and getting researching experience, but others find it hard to do this.”

Oxford will also remove names and gender pronouns from applications to ensure more equal gender balance. 52.5% of graduate students admitted for 2019 entry were male, compared to 45.6% of undergraduates.

Conway hopes anonymisation will ensure students from ethnic minority backgrounds do not face discrimination.

“We had a few people come up to us at open days, saying they didn’t think Oxford was for them, but this kind of thing showed we are taking these issues seriously,” he said.

Applicants will also submit standardised forms rather than their CVs. This aims to give tutors “fairer and more consistent” information.  

Professor Preston said: “Some applicants leave out information that we would like to know about, while others have greater support when filling out these applications.”

This is the latest in a series of steps to improve postgraduate access at Oxford, mirroring efforts to support undergraduate applicants from under-represented backgrounds. 

Oxford announced the launch of ten scholarships to Black UK research students last week. It acknowledged that Black students are under-represented at Oxford, accounting for only 1.5% of postgraduate students.

The Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, Professor Martin Williams, said: “I am thrilled to announce Black Academic Futures programme – the next step towards our vision of ensuring over time that finance is not a barrier to educational opportunity… at Oxford.”

The University also voted to remove the £75 application fee for postgraduate applicants, after pressure from the Oxford SU and student campaigners. 

A University spokesperson said: “This pilot scheme for doctoral training programmes forms part of the long-term, University-wide efforts to increase the number of promising postgraduate students from under-represented groups at Oxford. We are making steady progress towards improving postgraduate access through a number of recently-introduced initiatives and will be announcing further new schemes very shortly.”

Oxford has 11,813 postgraduate students, 63% of whom come from outside the UK.

Image credit to Jonathan Billinger.