The issue of access to higher education continues to receive significant levels of media attention with Universities & Skills Secretary of State John Denham issuing two slapdowns in as many weeks, first to Cambridge vice-chancellor Alison Richard, then to Oxford director of admissions Mike Nicholson. In a not wholly unprecedented pincer movement by the UK’s ‘top’ universities, Ms Richard and Mr Nicholson both criticised the apparent pressure that their institutions are under to admit a more representative cross-section of UK society, suggesting that this represented ‘government meddling’ in the running of Oxbridge. Mr Nicholson went so far as to suggest that it was actually impossible for Oxford to take a greater number of students from deprived backgrounds. This is, of course, nothing but total rubbish, but the remarks are not meant to be taken at face value, nor was Mr Denham the intended audience.
Rather, Oxbridge is engaging in an unstated game of brinkmanship with a future Conservative government, effectively giving an incoming Oxford-dominated Tory cabinet a final chance to stop the UK’s two most famous universities opting out of state funding and therefore any form of state control. Their price for this is an end to government driven attempts to widen participation at the country’s research elite universities. In particular, they make little secret of their dislike of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), one of the few good things to come out of the Higher Education Funding Act 2004. OFFA, a sop to rebellious Labour backbenchers, oversees efforts to broaden participation in HE. Notably, it has the power to refuse universities the right to charge top-up fees if it is dissatisfied with their efforts to improve access – although this power has not, to date, been used. The Tories have traditionally been antagonistic towards OFFA, saying in 2005 that
removing the Office for Fair Access would give the universities independence from government intervention and free students from top-up fees.
Since then, the Conservatives have dropped their opposition to top-up fees, but have been distinctly and deliberately silent on the future of OFFA and other initiatives to broaden access, hence the salvo from Oxbridge. By drawing Denham out into the open on the issue of government intervention to improve access, they are giving the Tories the opportunity to come out in opposition to his position, sensing a new Laura Spence style-case. As yet, they have declined to do so, although the Tory press has been more obliging.
So, does Oxbridge have a case? The answer is almost certainly no. Let us have a look at the chart at the top of this post. This demonstrates the performance of the English Russell Group (the grouping of research-elite universities) institutions at meeting one of the benchmarks set by the Higher Education Standards Agency (HESA) – the proportion of undergraduates admitted from state schools. Similar benchmarks exist for recruiting students from deprived backgrounds and geographic areas of historic low participation in HE. Now, if you are coming at this from a right-wing perspective, you will immediately jump up and down and shout ‘Top-down targets! One size fits all! Bad! Wrong!’. But hang on one moment. The benchmarks set by HESA are adjusted for each institution to take into account the academic qualifications of its intake and the economic status of the regions from which they mainly recruit. This means that, for example, Oxford – as a university routinely demanding three A grades at ‘A’-level and recruting heavily from the relatively wealthy South East and London regions, has a benchmark for recruiting state school pupils significantly lower than that for Sheffield, where many courses require grades ABB and recruits more from the less-well off regions, such as Yorkshire & The Humber.
And despite this – Oxbridge fails to meet the benchmark. Whilst the Russell Group’s performance is by no means good – just three of its English institutions meet their benchmarks – Oxbridge is head and shoulders above its colleagues. Set a very modest benchmark of admitting 73.6% of its undergraduates from state schools, Oxford managed just 53% for 2006 entry (as a side-note, 7% of school students study at independent schools). And if we are to believe the Oxbridge authorities, this is the best they can do.
But this is so self-evidently wrong. Why are other UK research elite universities able to do so much better? OK, only three Russell Group institutions (Liverpool, Sheffield and Southampton) actually beat their benchmark for state school admissions, but a further four (Birmingham, Kings, Manchester and Warwick) are within 5% of doing so, with LSE, UCL and Leeds falling between 5 and 10% short. Not great, but not 20% adrift either. It is worth taking a look at Oxford’s detailed 2007 undergraduate admissions statistics. These demonstrate that Oxbridge’s problem is two-fold. Firstly, it attracts a very low proportion of applications (46.5%) from what it classifies as the ‘maintained sector’ (it is worth remembering that this can include selective state grammar schools). Secondly, its acceptances are biased in favour of independent sector pupils (34% of applications, 44.5% of acceptances), whilst there is parity for maintained sector applicants (46.5% of applications, 46.8% of acceptances). The unspoken issue throughout is that Oxbridge’s reputation, application process and method of selection continues to operate as though HE was still an elite pursuit, something which is clearly not acceptable in this day and age. Whilst in my heavy-handed socialist way I would be in favour of dangling the threat of outright nationalisation over Oxbridge and a handful of other institutions if they fail to improve their performance in this respect, with my consensual hat on I will make a few suggestions as to some relatively minor, low-cost steps that Oxbridge ought to be taking to bring itself into concordance with an era of mass HE participation.
Allow applications for both institutions: the ban on students applying to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same round is archaic and unjustifiable. Permitting applications to both increases the possibility that the best students from state schools will be picked up by one of the institutions.
Abandon earlier deadlines for applications: students should view putting Oxbridge as one of their UCAS choices as something normal, not an exception – having seperate deadlines reinforces the impression of elitism. Requiring the decision to apply to be made earlier disadvantages students whose school or family background does not provide the historical experience to ensure the deadline is known about.
Centralised admissions, not collegiate: Applying to a college not to a university is unique to Oxbridge and adds an additional layer of mystique and perceived elitism to those who do not have a family experience of these universities. Knowing which is the most appropriate college for a particular student to apply to is unlikely to be common knowledge in state schools with little or no history of Oxbridge applications, whereas many independent schools have well developed links with colleges. There are huge levels of disparity between individual colleges’ willingness to accept state school students (at Oxford, Pembroke College receives just 41.7% of applications from the maintained sector, and only 36.3% of offers are made to state school students). It is obvious that the universities need to take greater centralised control of their admission procedures.
Encourage applications from local students: One of the key routes to improving the representative nature of research elite universities’ intake is for them to concentrate particular effort on the most disadvantaged parts of their own area, seeking to attract students who for economic or social reasons could only consider HE if they can continue to live at home. A good example of such activity is the White Rose Compact Scheme jointly operated by Sheffield, Leeds and York universities. By effectively insisting that students must ‘live in’ college, Oxbridge largely rule themselves out of such activity. Despite both being situated in relatively prosperous towns, both have significant pockets of deprivation – Oxford has two wards which feature amongst the 10% most deprived in the South East, including Blackbird Leys, one of the largest council estates in Europe. Anyone from these areas considering HE, but who cannot afford to leave home or has family commitments will find that their local university is basically uninterested in them. Likewise, mature students, who are even more likely to have family commitments, will be unable to apply.
Phase out interviews for most subjects: in a world where intensive coaching and practice are available in preparation for interviews for those in independent and selective schools or with the cash to pay for it privately, it is impossible that a selection system which relies heavily on interviews can be in any way equitable. Whilst a small number of subjects, such as medicine and veterinary science, can justify interviews (and indeed they are used at most institutions for these subjects), in the majority of cases the use of blind selection via the UCAS form is far preferable. Oxbridge will argue that they receive large numbers of applications from similarly-qualified applicants and cannot select without interview. However, a number of Russell Group institutions, including LSE, Kings and Bristol, receive far more applicants per place than Oxbridge, yet are able to select students for almost all their courses using the UCAS form alone.
Facilitate students working during term-time: In an ideal world I would like to see a situation where no student has to work to support their studies. However, barring a dramatic and unlikely change in government policy, the reality of mass-participation HE is that many students will have to work during both term and holiday time. Both universities concentrate their teaching in very short terms, making term-time work difficult: Cambridge bans it outright. Oxbridge claim that their short terms permit students to work during holidays: however the fact that most student employment is based on year-round, part-time employment makes this a difficult proposition. Further, this arrangement is highly disadvantageous to those students who would require a steady stream of income throughout the year, rather than a small number of larger installments.
All of these Oxbridge exceptions represent significant barriers to achieving the goal of a more representative intake at these two institutions. The fact that other highly-selective, world-class UK universities have proved themselves able to succeed without the need to distinguish themselves from other institutions through their selection procedures or educational environment in such dramatic ways proves that they are entirely unnecessary. The Labour government should act now to challenge Oxbridge to up its game in terms of access, before a laissez-faire Conservative administration turns the clock back a couple of decades.
John Denham (in my opinion, one of the better Cabinet ministers) is quite right to come down hard on the ridiculous statements that have emanated from Oxbridge in the past few weeks. But he must realise the game that the universities are playing and do more to ensure that their foot-dragging on widening participation does not continue.