Access: taking the opportunity

Comment

This article was written in response to a recent OxStu Comment article by James Blythe, “Access initiatives: more important now than ever

James Blythe, OUSU’s new VP for Access recently highlighted the frightening statistics showing how skewed statistics about Oxbridge offer-holders are towards a small number of elite schools. Not only may this make us wince, but it sends a negative message to prospective students of all backgrounds wondering whether Oxford is an appropriate place for them. Participants in access schemes often comment “I didn’t think I could get into Oxford” or “I didn’t think Oxford was for someone like me”. While there is much to be saddened by in the statistics, there is also hope and good news. Statistics can tell a bad story just as well as they tell a good one. Firstly, over the past half-century, the proportion of undergraduates accepted from state schools has increased by over 10%; perhaps too slow a change, but it is going in the right direction. In terms of the current make-up of Oxford, it can also be noted that 10% of the undergraduate body come from households with an income less than £16,000.

The University has the evidence to prove their access initiatives are truly doing good things

We cannot use these numbers to advocate a rosy picture of full and fair access to Oxford – this is clearly not the case, but we can use them to show Oxford is not dominated by the most privileged students. A strong response is needed in response to such an accusation, and this must be supplemented with a clear explanation that great efforts are being made to address the admissions imbalance and these efforts are getting results. This will inspire confidence in those who doubt, and promote the idea that students from any background have the capacity to make a competitive application. Steadily Oxford will then lose the negative reputation that is so well supported by statistics. The challenge is, can we be sure that our access efforts are getting results? Can we confidently tell prospective applicants that such efforts are not just ineffective projects more interested in looking good than doing good and making Oxford a more equal place?

Access is vital and important for the successful future of the university, and on a more basic level ensures fairness that is impossible to oppose

The university runs or is a part of a host of access initiatives, from working with Oxfordshire primary school children teaching them life skills, to programmes for students with care responsibilities, to the residential UNIQ scheme held in the Long Vacation, which many current students are probably familiar with, and which is now so well known that some courses are more oversubscribed for the UNIQ Summer School than the degree itself. Not only do these schemes seem worthwhile, the University has the information to prove they are truly doing good things. Using data-driven predictions of pupil performance based on a variety of factors, and comparing this with actual outcomes tracked over time, we can see the effects. The ‘Oxford Young Ambassadors Scheme’ achieved an 8-10% uplift in results for its first cohort. 43% of UNIQ Summer School participants get Oxbridge offers, significantly higher than would otherwise have been predicted.

Pembroke has seen its schemes have a huge effect on potential applicants. PHOTO/Dave_S
Pembroke has seen its schemes have a huge effect on potential applicants. PHOTO/Dave_S

Certainly reason to cheer, then. Not only do these results show the positive impact of efforts being made to increase access, surely they can also be used as evidence that the university should not hold back in its expenditure and support for the schemes. This logic can be extended to access efforts made by colleges, but in this respect many are behind the curve; in fact they cannot see the curve at all. The best college access schemes utilise data and track students: Pembroke note their schemes have increased Russell Group attainment in one school by 500%, and find students get more out of their degrees and stay in academia longer than they would have otherwise. But in some colleges, the same level of analysis simply does not occur. In worst case scenarios, it seems those in charge think of, or at least treat, access as a money pit – as akin to, or substitute for charity work. Access is so much more than this – it is something vital and important for the successful future of the university, and on a more basic level ensures fairness that is impossible to oppose. Not taking the time or effort to ensure access activities are doing more than giving colleges a warm feeling inside is an obvious waste.

A strong response to accusations of elitism will inspire confidence in those who doubt, and promote the idea that students from any background have the capacity to make a competitive application

With millions of pounds going into access every year, it seems certain that we can do great things and really accelerate Oxford’s path to equal access. For this, those involved in access across the university must be dedicated to the collecting and usage of data and information to make access work as good as it can be. The offer-holder statistics still make hard reading, and they will for some time, but we can find positive stories in other numbers which show Oxford has the ability make a big difference – it cannot waste such an important opportunity.

PHOTO/Julie Anne Johnson

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