Debate: Oxford’s attempts at outreach are satisfactory

Comment

For: Michael Scott

First of all, let’s be honest here; state schools are to blame for indoctrinating their students into thinking that Oxbridge is beyond their intellectual ability. These students aren’t missing out because the university isn’t doing its best to reach out to them; they’re missing out because they wouldn’t dream of applying in the first place, such is the vitriol and the spite with which Heads of Sixth Form spat the words ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Oxford’. This greatly saddens me. The university has probably missed out on some of the greatest minds of this generation purely because those that that surrounded and influenced those people in their adolescence perceived it as an academic institution made only for the rich. The message was loud and clear: Oxford isn’t for someone like you. Yet there are much wealthier students, lucky enough to have the privilege of a wonderful, personalised education who are positively encouraged to apply. A few schools even insist upon it!

Let’s be honest, we – the ones who made it – are all roughly on the same level in terms of aptitude. There’s the odd genius, yes, but he or she is above what education can do. For the rest of us, money is the only difference, and it makes me wonder just how many equally bright young men and women missed out on such a brilliant opportunity. Oxford should attempt to tackle this fundamental flaw in society and for my money it is, but it shouldn’t be alone in carrying this responsibility.

Oxford has, for some time now, promised only to root out the brightest and the best, regardless of income, social background or ethnicity. It still has some way to go, to be sure, but that shouldn’t mean it’s efforts up to now are unsatisfactory. Some of us may insist upon perfection, but let’s be reasonable here; Oxford isn’t doing a crap job when it comes to reaching out to prospective students. Far from it! Colleges have been running outreach programmes in local areas for years now, and very successful they are too. I myself was lucky enough to attend an outreach event back in 2010 near Liverpool. It taught me a lot about Oxbridge (let’s face, both shades of blue are in this one together!) and definitely provided me with some crucial signposts on the road to applying and getting a place. UNIQ Summer Schools gives lower sixth form students from states schools a chance to find out what’s unique about an Oxford education, with the admission criteria emphasising the value placed on applications from those who come from underrepresented demographics. At the heart of all of Oxford’s outreach work are Oxford students. We need to give credit to those who run these programs that they’ve placed its biggest asset front and centre because it’s clear that personal conversation is going to be the best way to connect with the 16 year-old and make them dream again!

There is an argument that points at the ratio of private school to state school students that are actually getting into Oxford and says “If the access schemes are so successful, how come those numbers are still so disproportionately skewed?” The fact that the make-up of the university’s undergraduate intake doesn’t match that of their national peer-group is tragic. But it’s obviously not just down to access. I’ve already tried to highlight how much Oxford is doing to get the word out on the street; Oxford is for you! Well, Oxford is for them, but only if they get the grades.

Here’s the real reason we’re not seeing the fruits of the university’s labour. There’s a concrete fact of life: if you don’t get your A*s you won’t get in. And a lot of them don’t get their grades. Why? Their schools are letting them down. They’re as bright as those who make, but if you’re not taught well you won’t pass the exam. It’s true for you too and you know it. So there it is. The double whammy. You won’t get in. You can’t get in. That’s the position our country’s schools are putting 16 year olds in today and nothing Oxford is going to do is ever going to stop that. Oxford University’s attempts to widen access are satisfactory. The reason they still appear to be having such a small effect is the incompetency of our country’s state schools. Let’s not pan Oxford when nothing it can do is going to change that simple fact!

 

 

Against: Maryam Ahmed

 

Thousands of 18-year-olds across the country are gearing up to apply to Oxford, and of course, with this annual flurry comes the annual debate. Is the Oxford demographic skewed in favour of students from wealthy, middle class backgrounds? The answer is a resounding yes; whilst only ~7% of children in the UK are privately educated, they make up a hugely disproportionate 42.5% of Oxford’s undergraduate population. Could the University do more to counter this? Er, yes-ish.

To be blunt, the blame for this skewness rests squarely on the shoulders of the state education sector. Oxford simply receives more applications from the private sector, and our comprehensives, academies, and free schools need to up their game. But despite this, branding Oxford’s access initiatives as ‘satisfactory’ is unhelpful and not at all in the spirit of things. ‘Satisfactory’ is a word befitting an online review of a slightly grotty B&B, not the world’s greatest University. Oxonians don’t do mediocrity or complacency, so forget satisfactory; why should our drive to widen access be anything less than outstanding?

The University may run hundreds of access events per year (and the efforts of Access & Admissions staff across Oxford are nothing short of Herculean) but their format could be improved on. As it stands, school groups are generally brought in for day long visits rather than residentials, with a focus on 14-18 year olds. That’s all well and good, and these events are useful- but the thing is, gifted kids aren’t stupid. They know they ought to be aiming high. They know Oxford doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of socio-economic background. But they also know that the endemic failure of state schools to nurture and cater for academically gifted children makes it highly unlikely that they will ever be in a position to apply to Oxford.

Bringing school groups in for isolated day trips, with little continuation or follow up, will always have limited efficacy- we may as well just send the poor things a photo of the Rad Cam captioned: “Looks good, eh? Pity your school is so crap. Good luck!” What’s needed is consistency and a greater focus on long term initiatives. The University must identify potential applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds as early as possible- Year 7 rather than Year 11- and bring them to Oxford for repeat visits and intensive academic summer schools over a period of years. The annual UNIQ residential summer schools are brilliant, and it’s precisely these sorts of access initiatives we ought to invest more in. Oxford (alas) can’t overhaul the sub-par state education system, but it can certainly take a more interventionist approach to keeping potential applicants on the straight and narrow.

Of course, in an age where it’s considered blasphemous to label any child as gifted for fear of upsetting their classmates, any such scheme would elicit endless hand wringing from the NUT. Indeed, engagement with teachers and the teaching unions is an access issue in itself. As a former comprehensive school pupil, I’m convinced that the biggest barrier to Oxford is not a lack of access, but incompetent teachers and a dysfunctional state education system. The University, then, has a responsibility to publicly (and loudly) bring the state sector to account on the real reasons behind the state/private discrepancy at Oxford- namely “why aren’t you lot sending us more applicants?”

Make no mistake, Oxford’s attempts to widen access are impressive- but labelling them as ‘satisfactory’ implies that there’s no room for improvement. We ought to be unashamedly proud of our status as the world’s greatest and most accessible university (true fact), but we can also get our hands much, much dirtier when it comes to criticising the state sector, and intensively coaching potential applicants from the most underprivileged backgrounds, from an early age.