Why Oxbridge is barely scraping the surface of improving access

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  • Picture of Kobir Ahamed
    Kobir Ahamed
  • Education
  • Higher education

Kobir Ahamed, an alumnus from one of the RSA Academies, discusses his Oxbridge experience, and why there is such pressing need to learn from what works and improve access for students from less privileged backgrounds.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of David Lammy. There are few of his status who champion the underprivileged as much as he does. But I can't help feeling that he always misses the bigger picture.

I took part in a Foundation Year at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), Oxford University, which he recently championed in his recommendations for Oxbridge access. It was quite possibly the best year of my life. However I mainly saw white individuals of a certain class and region of the UK.  I'm not prejudiced, many of these people have become lifelong friends. Very few of them came from what I would consider to be in my traditional Handsworth slang, 'The ends'.

Lack of access for ethnic minority groups is not just an Oxbridge problem, it is everyone's problem. There is a tendency to forget about the wider societal problems at hand here.

I was lucky enough to go to a brilliant state school (Holyhead School, a member of the RSA Family of Academies). Yes I'm aware that is a revolutionary concept. But I did when many others do not. The fact that 40% of state secondary school teachers do not encourage their brightest students to apply because they wouldn't 'fit in' or be suited to the stereotypical life at Oxbridge is beyond ridiculous. You can be whoever you want at Oxford and it's highly likely the same applies to Cambridge. In my brief year I saw a range of people who had different beliefs, opinions, tastes and hates and believe me, everyone, including a working class brown Muslim kid from Handsworth managed to fit in.

What’s the problem?

Oxbridge access data shows that around 3000 students from disadvantaged backgrounds get 3A's or better every single year. So why is it that Oxford accepted 82% of its applicants from the top two social classes? Schools clearly have the students but not the wealth and resources that public schools possess to help them get in.

This is a political problem. Cutting school funding for the first time since the 90s isn't exactly helping things in terms of Oxbridge access for the underrepresented. Its no wonder the likes of Eton, St Paul's and Westminster are getting the majority of places.

Oxbridge can't dodge this bullet. They are responsible for the lack of access just as much as anyone else. How many state schools are the two elite universities going to in order to encourage applications and give advice?

I have fond memories of being astoundingly bored during a symposium on the topic of outreach at my old college before things kicked off and became interesting (thanks to Lammy). His argument of 'unconscious bias' was difficult to disagree with. The further irony of a bunch of middle/upper class white men responding belligerently to this unfair treatment was also interesting.

Was this a conceited and sanctimonious response? Without doubt. Unconscious bias is something which exists, perhaps not with all tutors but it’s definitely there amongst them. How can you disagree with something you don't know that you're doing? I may not be able to prove it, but they can't disprove it. This is one of many explanations as to why bright students with exceptional grades from underrepresented backgrounds fail to get in.

I once spoke with the Head of St Peters College on the matter of access. He raised a good point thatmany students apply due to the status of Oxbridge as elite universities, rather than students being suited to and wanting to learn through its niche academic system.

Students from state schools tend to possess varying academic proficiencies other than traditional essay writing. This is mainly because they haven't been 'trained' to do so, or to 'think' from an early age in a way which will please tutors carrying out interviews. Yet many of these students are academically advanced enough to be at Oxbridge. Is it for the state school students to change or for Oxbridge to diversify the type of students they accept?

Let’s not be pessimistic, let’s look at what works

Mansfield and Wadham have a good record on offering a high proportion of places to state schools and sixth forms. Now, I have no idea what they're doing, but one would suggest that it would be pertinent for the other colleges to take a pen to paper, and get down there and see what on Earth they're up to in order to achieve these results.

Then we have the likes of the brilliant Oxford African Caribbean Society who amongst many things hold an Annual Access Conference engaging with the black communities of Britain and supporting the next generation of students through shadowing programmes to make successful applications to Oxford.

The most revolutionary and pioneering is of course the LMH Foundation Year. I may be biased but I do believe that this is the one big thing other colleges could adopt to improve their access to underrepresented backgrounds.

Traditional interviews miss out on brilliant students because they fail to take into account a range of externalities which takes away the social and human aspect of an application. What we must look like to tutors as just grades on a piece of paper is eliminated on the Foundation Year.

Issues such as early language barriers, physiological and mental health, bereavements, and a range of cultural and social issues are factored in whilst still maintaining high standards and searching for academic talent.

LMH is far from being amongst one of the wealthiest colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge, yet last year they covered the fees, accommodation, and board of 10 students and supplemented them with bursaries. LMH set the tone and the precedent for other colleges.

The enemy in this situation is the Norrington table, used for ranking the academic success of colleges at Oxford. Many colleges are still profoundly influenced by this and wouldn't gamble losing their status by risking their undergraduate places.

The fact is that nine of us on the foundation year got places to study our chosen subjects, so we can't all be that bad.

I feel I've asked more questions than answered, or at least hoped to address. And there are so many more. For example should we or should we not use contextual data? An argument for another day.

The overarching problem is that enough isn't being done.

The fear is that we'll all be saying the same thing in a few years’ time.  

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  •  I suspect it would be beneficial to everyone if Oxford continued to maintain its level of excellence and schools should change and develop to meet them. You will be aware of the level of work and application required at Oxford in comparison with other universities. When you look across a degree like history other universities are just not as demanding. Oxford is looking  for a mixture of unique talents for their place of learning. Harping on about their efforts for diversity undermines all the clever student who are attending other universities as if their chic has been second rate! Why not work to bring those other institutions up to the challenging  level of Oxford?  By the way I do think diversity is essential for a stable society and to bring new energies and views to learning but not at the price of lowering standards. 

    • Hi Paul,

      Thank you for your comment. It is important that Oxford maintains its level of excellence - however, as Kobir writes in his blog, there are a number of state school students getting the grades required to get into Oxford and many of these students are 'put off' applying to Oxford for a variety of reasons. This is why it is important that Oxford does all it can do to dispel the myths that surround both the application process and the experience of going to Oxford to study. If top universities did more to reach out to these students, standards would not have to drop and more state school students would feel encouraged and able to apply. In fact, state school students are likely to do better in their degrees than those students who attended a private school (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/nov/05/top-state-school-pupils-get-better-degrees-than-those-from-private-schools) - all the more reason for top universities to continue to develop effective outreach programmes!

      Thanks again,

      Roisin (RSA Academies Coordinator) 

    • First of all, not everyone is suited to, or would want to go to Oxbridge for many reasons. They don't offer courses such as Nursing or Disaster Management as I am currently studying. So changing schools to suit them rather than them suiting schools would be difficult. Also, I refer back to my point of diversifying the number of applicants with varying skills. These skills shouldn't be lost or ignored by schools sticking to a policy of just getting students into Oxbridge. Rather Oxbridge should meet the needs of these students. Education is as I'm sure you're aware, fragmented in our society. This is a political issue as well. Funding, support, confidence in the the state system is needed to combat the issues in access at Oxbridge. Secondly, not all students are at the academic level of the likes of Oxbridge. A harsh reality but a true one. Bringing them up to the challenging level of Oxbridge would be counterproductive would it not? Hence we have other highly respective and highly academic universities which teach in a different manner to meet the needs of these students. It's not that students should be undermined or felt as if their work is second rate. It's more to do with the fact that they learn though teaching styles that the likes of Oxbridge does not adhere to. And in the end, many students leave university with a high level of academic capabilities, understanding and improved critical thinking. Regardless of whether they were at Oxbridge or not. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/01/oxbridge-elitism-privilege-abolish-university-admissions?CMP=twt_gu  

      I don't believe anyone is asking for standards to be lowered. Just for the standards of recruitment and access to be changed for the inclusion of a more diverse range of students, who would be perfect for Oxbridge but fail to get in via the current conventional standards. 

      I hope you find my response useful.