State students at disadvantage as Oxford applications soar

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Oxford and Cambridge Universities have rejected more students this year than ever before, sparking renewed debate about outreach and access to Britain’s top universities.

Last year, Oxford admitted 3,233 students from a pool of 17,241 applicants. In the last ten years, applications to Oxford have swollen by 55%, making gaining a place increasingly challenging.

But it seems that the feat is still more difficult for some groups of pupils than others.

Whilst independent schools account for just 7% of the nation’s students, they fill nearly half of Oxbridge places awarded to British students. In fact, students in lower income brackets – those eligible for full maintenance grants – were just 14.7% of Oxford students in 2011.

But there is another large discrepancy in the entrance levels of state school students: it tends to vary from college to college, ranging from 47% of Pembroke to 78% of Mansfield entrants coming from government schools.

Shahenda Darwich, JCR Access Officer at Mansfield College claims that the success of access at Mansfield is “because of the commitment of the college community to the issue”’. The college runs an Access Ambassador Scheme involving over 30 undergraduates and arranges application workshops in target regions with the help of college tutors and undergraduate volunteers.

But despite Mansfield’s successes, Shahenda believes that there is still more work to be done. She said, “While we recognise how much progress we have made in widening access we realise there is a still a long ahead. We as a college are constantly looking to improve and build on the work we do, and we are fortunate in having a very active and dedicated Admissions Officer and Senior Tutor who ensure that this is the case.”

The percentage of state schools students attending Oxford peaked in 2002, with the highest ratio being 56%. This compares with Cambridge’s record of 59%. Cambridge overtook Oxford in percentage increases of state school students in 1988, and has continued showing greater progress than Oxford every year since.

Oxford University spends £11m every year on access, including £3 million annually on outreach activities in schools and sixth-form colleges, on top of the £8m it spends on bursaries for underprivileged students. In spite of this, the figures for successful state school applicants remain low.

The slow progress in access to quality higher education appears similar across the country, with poor government school students half as likely to go on to university than those from wealthier backgrounds. Like Oxford, universities throughout the nation are increasing their spending on poorer students, planning more than £700 million for 2017-18 in funding to encourage those otherwise less likely to apply. This is an increase of more than £100 million from 2012-13 levels.

However, Paul Bolton, the author of a recent paper entitled Oxbridge “Elitism”, warns us not to adopt a “limited” view of the equity of Oxbridge admissions. He claims “The debate about elitism at Oxford and Cambridge has tended to focus on a single indicator – the proportion of students accepted from state schools – and particularly whether that has gone up or down year by year.”

Outside of the state school statistics, there is certainly cause for optimism – the figures are improving for other areas that have been historically inequitable. For example, official gender ratios for Oxford University show that over half of acceptances in 2012 were female.