The ‘best’ cannot mean the most exclusive

The UK’s least socially inclusive university is in need of radical admissions reform

Source: Max Pixel

It is uncomfortable to think that in the same week, The Times Higher Education Guide has ranked Oxford University as the best in the world, but also the worst in the UK for social inclusivity. What kind of message is this sending? Does the University have to keep up the statistic that four in ten of their students are from a non-selective state school (in comparison to the eight in ten who attend these schools in the UK) to stay at the top in all other areas?

I heavily question whether Oxford University, along with Cambridge and Imperial, should be considered ‘top’ universities when their statistics for accepting students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are so incomprehensively low. It was recently reported that Oxford University spends £108,000 ‘recruiting each additional low-income student’, with access spending at £14 million. Quite frankly, this is alarming. Clearly the University is attempting to make changes, but it should not cost £108,000 for each student like myself to be accepted into the University. Where is this money is going?

Of course, it is a combination of staff salaries in access roles, and different outreach programmes. There is obviously a lot of work behind this figure, such as the UNIQ Summer School programme. UNIQ is open to students from state schools and was the key reason why I applied to study at Oxford. For its 2019 programme, UNIQ will admit 1,350 students per year, compared to 850 in 2018. This increase in students on the programme should lead to a rise in the number of students from low-income backgrounds being accepted by Oxford.

However, it feels like the University is ashamed of its elitist reputation but is using a symbol of elitism – excessive money – to make very little change. David Lammy MP suggested earlier this year that the University should actively approach students from the lowest two income brackets with the grades required for Oxbridge and tell them that they are good enough to come to Oxford. It would hardly cost anything for the University to send a letter to each of these students (there were estimated to be 5,000 in 2015-16) encouraging them to apply and reassuring them that the University will help them in any way it can. Perhaps this is idealistic, but I know students on a personal level who never applied to Oxbridge and would have found this style of access to be invaluable.

What deters students from low-income backgrounds from applying to Oxbridge? For a start, all the data suggests you probably won’t be accepted. Even if you get past that first hurdle, you may still feel on the side-lines – I know that I often do. Whilst the £108,000 also goes towards bursaries for disadvantaged students, the issue of social inclusivity doesn’t stop there. As a student from a lower income and non-selective state school background, I have often felt isolated in a multitude of ways, from the panic of a ‘formal dinner’ in Freshers’ Week to not knowing anyone in the University. If you are the only student from your school at Oxford, while schools like Westminster sent 49 students to Oxford in 2017 alone, it is easy to feel isolated. Not only that, but with 25% of students from London, it starts to feel like everyone from London knows each other already. Social isolation is commonplace and an absolutely normal reaction to the elitism of Oxford University.

At Lady Margaret Hall, there’s a new access initiative known as a Foundation Year. Whilst the programme is not entirely perfect yet, the outstanding students that it has helped gain a place at Oxford University show how it is not impossible to make the University into a more inclusive environment. It shocks, saddens, and angers me that no other college has an equivalent programme yet. Colleges need to either take responsibility for their shocking access statistics, or the University itself needs to introduce a centralised college system for admissions.

The arguments against a centralised collegiate system are ridiculous. I couldn’t care less about the college traditions and keeping them autonomous. Nor am I moved by someone wanting to apply to a specific college because a parent went there, or it’s at the top of the Norrington Table, or it has a nice ‘vibe’. A centralised system seems to be an appealing way of increasing admissions from lower income backgrounds by dispelling vast discrepancies between colleges.

Unfortunately, I doubt these reforms will ever happen. The University is too set in its ways, too reliant on tradition, and I fear too scared of the backlash such a system would provoke. I love this university, the city, and everything I have gained already from one year here. Yet every day I grow increasingly frustrated by its appalling lack of social inclusivity. Big changes are needed.

Molly Innes is the JCR Social Backgrounds Officer at Lady Margaret Hall

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