Over the last several years, Oxford has again been subject to intense scrutiny of its access and admissions practices. The clear problem that exists in both student and staff populations is written about in the national press on an almost daily basis. In May 2018 saw the release of the statistical admissions report, causing an outcry as it was made clear how much further University of Oxford have to go.
So many students are already engaged in access and outreach, whether as part of the work of brilliant societies like First-Gen and Oxford ACS, schemes like Oxford SU Target Schools, the recent ‘Humans of Oxford University’ and the leadership shown by JCR Presidents through Presidents Committee, or just by returning to their former schools and breaking down the myths that stop talented students applying.
But it can still sometimes feel like the situation is hopeless. Disillusionment and cynicism are understandable responses to a problem that goes to the heart of what it means to be a student here.
This year, we have the opportunity to make a real difference, and Oxford SU intends to seize it. The new universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), has demanded radical action. Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation, said this in his recent foreword to the OfS consultation on access:
‘We are a long way from equality of opportunity in relation not just to access, but also student success and progression. We want to ratchet up the level of ambition, especially in the universities that have the biggest gaps in access and participation […] It’s really a once in a generation opportunity to drive the transformational change that current and potential students deserve.’
Oxford will soon need to submit an access and participation plan to the OfS. This plan must set admissions targets on a wide range of underrepresented groups, and we want the university to be more ambitious than it has ever been before. We understand from the Director for Fair Access that nothing less than significant change will be acceptable. Now is the time for students to show how much we care. Lucas Bertholdi-Saad, Vice President (Access and Academic Affairs) will be responding to the OfS consultation on these plans on behalf of Oxford students, and we want to hear from you about what ambitions should be set.
It sounds obvious, but ‘access’ is fundamentally a question of social justice. Either we accept the status quo as representative of the best talent available, or we reject the prejudices that have held back some students at every stage, from early years through to A-Levels, and find a new definition of excellence. There must be a cultural shift across the university as to what a promising applicant looks and sounds like. Prejudices reinforce themselves and perpetuate the link between academic prestige and stereotypes that are exclusive, elitist and harmful to our university.
My own college, Mansfield, has been at the forefront of access and outreach efforts, all the while operating on a tight budget and one of the smallest endowments in the collegiate university. This year it made 95.9% of its UK offers to students from the state sector, going beyond the national representation. Academic success has not fallen as a result, putting paid to the pervasive myth that Oxford must choose between representation and academic merit.
Students care deeply about access to Oxford, and so many of us are actively engaged in this work because we benefited from it ourselves. I was the only successful applicant to Oxford from my selective state school in Manchester, and the 2014 UNIQ summer school I took part in was instrumental to this. But while the university is intent on pushing out good news stories through its PR channels, it must listen to its students – be bold, show leadership and take meaningful action to right this historic wrong.
In June I was privileged to hear the legendary civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton speak. His message to the university was clear – if we are truly at the forefront of knowledge and research, in a city filled with some of the brightest minds in the world, why can’t we find a way to admit the best students regardless of their background? This year, there will be no downplaying of the scale of the challenge or complacency about the rate of progress yet made. If you’re with us, please join us as we launch our campaign – together we can change this university.