The Great Divide

first_imgMike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oxford University, said: “Oxford strives to ensure that we recruit the most able students, regardless of their background. We cannot address inequalities in the school system alone, but we work closely with schools and work very hard towards raising aspirations and attainment among students. Our widening participation and schools liaison team, which has recently increased, supported 700 school visits last year, reaching 20,000 students through that means alone.” James Lamming, Vice-President (Access) of the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), added that “Our efforts aim to ensure that every student is aware of the real opportunities on offer at Oxford, and not just the myths propagated by the media”. But it is the University too which perpetuates its myths. The grandeur, the ritualistic traditions, and the prestige of Oxford might be something to which such non-traditional applicants may aspire, but are also intimidating and discouraging to others. Such aspects of the University create a sense of haughty elitism. It is all very well to have a smiling mix of ethnically diverse students throughout the prospectus, but there is much work still to be done by Oxford in order to widen participation. Oxford’s progress towards diversity is impeded not only by the University’s image, one self-perpetuated and further exaggerated by the media, but also by the criticism against which it constantly has to defend itself – from Labour and institutes like IPPR. This leads the University towards a choice between protecting its academic integrity or yielding to current political pressure. It is a choice that no University should have to make – and one which Oxford would never have to face if the government and the University sought to co-operate to face not only the problem of Oxford’s antiquated image, but also of the wider social issues that hold back Oxford’s diversity. Recent research has criticised Oxford’s access policy for lagging behind Labour’s targets for the proportion of state-school students admitted. But should the government be allowed to set quotas that might compromise Oxford’s academic integrity?Oxford is a university of world renown in some part because it takes ‘the brightest and the best’ applicants. And many it has to, in order to strengthen its reputation as one of the best universities in the world, and to compete internationally with far richer Ivy League universities. But the 7% of students from private schools make up around half of Oxford’s annual intake. This suggests, somewhat crudely, that you are seven times more likely to win a place at Oxford if you go to private school.The social argument against this is that wealthier parents can effectively ‘buy’ an advantage for their child in the highly competitive Oxford admissions process. However, there are concerns that Oxford is being pressured into compromising its selection process in favour of state-school students for the sake of political correctness. Although the University has frequently defended accusations from either side, the pressure is mounting for the University to become more heterogeneous – and the numbers from state schools are dropping.Although an equal ratio between state and private schools may not be socially representative, it might at least create a cohesive environment. A first-year, who attended his local grammar school, argued that “those from public schools are far more networked socially, whilst those from state schools are generally more localised and insular. It was therefore intimidating knowing very few people and seeing all these Freshers who knew each other from socials and affiliations between their schools.” Indeed, the students from private schools tend to be the first to throw themselves into Oxford’s many societies, perhaps because they are more used to doing so. The financial divide between private and state schools prevents the latter from offering enhanced extra-curricular activities and preparation for Oxbridge entrance, which arguably prepares candidates who are more confident and articulate: qualities almost as important as academic aptitude. These, after all, are the characteristics which help an applicant’s aptitude to shine more brightly at interview.The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) will publish a study on Oxbridge state school admissions in a year’s time. Preliminary figures published recently by the IPPR claim that “Oxford and Cambridge will not meet their benchmark for increasing the proportion of students from the state sector until 2016”. The government has set a target of 62% state-school students by 2010. However, the analysis offered by IPPR is misleading. The pool of applicants from which Oxford (and Cambridge) recruit their students does not simply equate to the number of students who receive 3 As at A-level. Like the recent Sutton Trust report, the fundamental flaw in the IPPR’s analysis is to assume that all students gaining 3 As want to do a subject offered by the University of Oxford – which is not the case. Nor do they all have the right combination of A-level subjects to gain entry even if they are interested in one of the courses on offer. The analysis also falls down in assuming that 3 A grades alone equates to a potential Oxford place. Oxford admissions tutors assess potential through aptitude tests, GCSEs, written work and at least two interviews per candidate, as well as A-levels. 10 per cent of all A-level students gain 3 As; Oxford University only has places for the top one per cent.last_img read more