The University’s head of admissions has raised a few eyebrows with his comments in a speech at a recent conference on widening access.
Mike Nicholson, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oxford, was speaking at a conference hosted by the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, when he declared: “I really don’t care whether candidates are poor and bright or rich and bright. I want the bright ones.” Regarding students in the admissions in the selection process, he continued: “If they’re thick and rich, they’re the ones I’m hoping our process can exclude.”
The University, whose access record has come under fire in recent years from politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, is trying to “identify students with real potential for success, irrespective of social background,” Nicholson said.
The idea of ‘thick, rich kids’ is not new to the British political discourse. Education Secretary Michael Gove used the phrase in 2010 when justifying the coalition’s policy towards academies:
“Rich, thick kids do better than poor, clever children before they go to school. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of our society, the situation is getting worse.”
The government has also taken more direct aim at Oxford since coming to power three years ago. In 2011, David Cameron claimed that Oxford had admitted only one black student that year, leading the University to rebut with figures showing it had in fact accepted 20 black and Caribbean students for entry the previous year.
Nicholson was also keen to take the fight to the critics of the Oxford admissions system, saying that many were former students of the University from a generation ago.
He added the barbed comment: “Of those people who were admitted 20, 30, 40 years ago, it would be interesting to see how many of them would be admitted now.”
Although Mr Nicholson was unavailable for further comment, his office clarified the context of his statements. Matt Pickles, a press officer handling queries regarding admissions and education policy, stated: “Mr Nicholson was speaking on the topic of what universities should look for when selecting students. He was making the point that Oxford University only looks for academic ability and potential when selecting students.”
Some nine out of ten Oxford students must now sit an aptitude test for their subject before reaching the interview level, leading to fears that under-coached state school students are at a disadvantage.
In response to these fears, Pickles commented: “Admissions tests are all designed to assess candidates’ suitability for studying their chosen course at Oxford. We offer students advice and guidance on taking our tests, including sample papers, for free on our website.”