The quad of Christ Church College, Oxford, looking towards Tom Tower on a snowy day
Prospective students are not discouraged by Oxford's Hogwarts image (photograph: Toby Ord CC-BY SA 2.5)

‘Hogwarts generation’ undaunted by Oxford traditions

Dr Samina Khan (Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach) has told the Times Educational Supplement that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are excited about the prospect of Oxford traditions, rather than put off by them.

In her first full-length interview since starting her job in 2014, Dr Khan claimed that students who have ‘grown up with Harry Potter’ are ‘really excited’ about the overtly traditional aspects of the university, stating that the ‘grand dining halls’ are often ‘compared to Hogwarts.’ She rejected the idea that teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds would not consider applying to Oxford on the basis of its more archaic traditions, saying: ‘They are probably far more familiar with it than we give them credit for.’ ‘They recognise the benefits of [a] small college community, the grand tables, talking about current affairs—that’s what we want them to embrace and take ownership of.’

Dr Khan also stated that students from poorer backgrounds who are predicted three A grades at A-level are ‘more likely’ to be invited for interview than their more advantaged peers. She explained that this is mainly the case when the university reaches a ‘threshold point’, the point at which it becomes difficult to distinguish between applicants solely on the basis of grades. The university uses ‘contextual data’ in order to help tutors ‘understand academic potential’. Other information taken into account includes exam results relative to the school’s average, any admissions tests taken by the applicant, and their socio-economic background.

A spokesperson for the university clarified Dr Khan’s comments: ‘The point about students from disadvantaged backgrounds getting extra consideration is related to our use of contextual flags to invite extra candidates to interview (not pushing out otherwise more qualified candidates) on the one hand, and making marginal decisions about candidates on the borderlines on the other.’

Dr Khan also stressed the importance of schools starting preparation for Oxbridge admissions at a much younger age. She believes that schools should start working with potential applicants from the age of 11, rather than leaving it until sixth form. She told the TSE: ‘‘I would say with some of the schools we visit, it very much falls upon the head of sixth form and I think they are then perhaps realising, in terms of Oxford and selective universities, it needs to have happened further down.’

Samina Khan, who is a parent governor for two schools in Buckinghamshire, said that state schools should provide ‘super curricular clubs’ in order to increase pupils’ passion for and broader understanding of the subject they will eventually apply for. She stressed that applicants for Oxford need to be able to ‘think on their feet’, and practice of doing so ‘needs to happen earlier and not just a couple of weeks before the interview is due.’

However, Charles McGrath, JCR Access Rep at Pembroke College, said: ‘It’s quite an ask for students to have to prepare their futures years in advance. This would be particularly hard for those from backgrounds where the parent or parents have not attended university, as they will most likely not know the challenges associated with applying to university, and certainly not top universities like Oxford and Cambridge. From my experience, it was only really at sixth form that I was given the support needed to consider putting Oxford on my UCAS application, and did not have the information or confidence to seriously consider it beforehand. Improving university applications advisers in schools with low participation rates may be a step forward, but it can’t be seen as the whole solution to this problem.’

Dr Khan stressed that schools that lack the time or resources to work with potential applicants over a long period of time should contact the university itself for support. She said that the University of Oxford aims to ‘reach out to schools and teachers who are currently not engaging with us; those in those schools who are thinking Oxford is not for them, not right for their students.’

Dr Khan’s interview with the TES follows a report published last month from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which criticised Oxford and Cambridge for giving places to a ‘disproportionate number of students form private schools’. The report showed that Oxford would need to increase its intake of pupils from state schools by 24% in order to meet its benchmark.

In the most recent round of admissions, the university had 19,000 applications for 3,200 places.