The news last month that students from the maintained sector received 69 per cent of Oxford University’s undergraduate offers this year was seen as a watershed for state school pupils, breaking the dominance of their independent school rivals.
These leaps have been hailed – by the university itself as well as by political commentators – as evidence that their access and diversity schemes are at last succeeding. The assertion has been substantiated by the record numbers of offers handed out to applicants from the UK’s most deprived areas.
However, while the feel-good headlines have been welcomed with largely unfettered enthusiasm, experts on university access fear that they belie the reality of the situation. Dr Nuala Burgess of King’s College London warns against assuming that the increase in offers will lead to real change in the university’s social makeup. ‘Although this is undoubtedly good news for people who believe in social mobility and social justice, offers are very different to places’, she explains.
According to Dr Burgess, who chairs the educational campaign group Comprehensive Future, ‘the language around access needs to be clarified. People from universities and in government talk in very woolly terms about offers, but this does not account for the numbers of students who actually take up places, or who complete a whole undergraduate degree.’
And a closer look at Oxford’s admissions statistics reveals a very different story to the one that the university has been so keen to trumpet: only 76 per cent of Oxford offer holders from socio-economically disadvantaged groups were admitted in 2018, compared with 86 per cent across the board.
The same disparity exists in Cambridge’s admissions data, and becomes more pronounced as the level of socio-economic disadvantage deepens. 63 per cent of offer holders from areas with the lowest rates of higher education were admitted to the universities in 2018, compared with 81 per cent from areas with the highest rates of university attendance.
These statistics lend weight to concerns that the two universities are now so desperate to improve the public face of their admissions procedures that they are offering places to applicants from lower socio-economic backgrounds who have very little chance of meeting their stringent requirements.
One teacher who has advised dozens of disadvantaged Oxbridge applicants in recent years told me that they have seen ‘a number of students applying with poor GCSE grades and sub-standard personal statements, who then go on to be invited to interview and offered places that they do not have a hope in hell of taking up.’
Interestingly, the problem is especially pronounced on certain courses and at certain colleges. Of the 32 students from disadvantaged backgrounds to be offered places to read Experimental Psychology at Oxford between 2016-18, only 17 (53 per cent) were ultimately admitted to the university, compared with 79 per cent of students from more privileged backgrounds. 83 per cent of more advantaged offer holders for Biological Sciences took up their places, compared with 64 per cent of students from less advantaged families. Similarly, 86 per cent of advantaged holders at Oxford’s Mansfield College took up their places from 2016-18, whereas only 66 per cent of disadvantaged students did so.
The vast majority of Oxbridge undergraduate offers are A*AA or higher, and, unlike other universities, neither institution has opted to make extensive use of positive discrimination policies where lower offers are made to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Oxford did announce last year that it was intending to make fifty lower-than-usual offers based on contextual circumstances, this accounts for only 1.5 per cent of its annual intake.
Despite both universities hailing the fact that they have handed out a record percentage of offers to BAME applicants, the disconnect between their narrative and the reality is also found when comparing the experiences of applicants from different ethnic origins: only 76 per cent of offer holders with Black African or Black Caribbean heritage were admitted to Oxford in 2018, compared with 89 per cent of white students. Just 44 per cent of Mixed (White and Black Caribbean/Black African) offer holders took up their places at Cambridge.
According to James Turner, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust, ‘the more ambitious use of contextual admissions is crucial, recognising that potential isn’t fully captured in A Level grades. This should include, where appropriate, reduced offers to certain students to recognise that the playing field at age 18 is far from level.’
A spokesperson for Cambridge emphasised that the university is aiming towards ensuring that at least a quarter of its annual intake will come from the most under-represented and disadvantaged areas by 2024-25. They admitted that ‘we are planning to make greater use of contextualised data and tools such as open offers and the adjustment scheme’, which allows candidates to apply to the university in August if they have exceeded their conditional offer from another institution
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Oxford pointed out that the university has begun small pilot schemes on A Level subject support to help disadvantaged applicants meet their conditional offers, and that its Foundation Oxford programme, launched last year, will help to bridge the gap between the typically lower attainment of students from under-represented backgrounds and the university’s high academic standards.
‘The scheme aims to open up places to students with high academic potential who, for reasons beyond their control, are not yet in a position to make a competitive Oxford application,’ the spokesperson said. ‘Once in operation, offers for Foundation Oxford will be made on the basis of lower contextual A-level grades, rather than the University’s standard offers. Successful students will undertake a year-long, bespoke, subject-specific programme, and if they successfully complete the programme, will move on to the Oxford undergraduate degree that they initially applied for.’
Both universities also stressed that the problem of disadvantaged students being much less likely to meet conditional offers than their more privileged peers is not confined to Oxford or Cambridge.
But while their efforts to recruit and support disadvantaged applicants are to be commended, they must also eradicate the hidden disadvantages suffered by students from the very backgrounds whose successes in gaining offers they are so keen on celebrating. Until they do that, it will be difficult to accept their triumphalist rhetoric about widening access as much more than a virtue-signalling Public Relations exercise.