Oxbridge still failing poor students, think-tank research shows

OxPolicy, a think-tank comprised of undergraduate and postgraduate researchers at the University of Oxford, has recently released new research demonstrating that the University’s efforts to increase its number of low-income students are failing.

Figures published on 30th April, collected through Freedom of Information requests, show that students from under-represented demographics are less likely to be offered places at Oxford and Cambridge than other applicants. OxPolicy researchers found that despite “flagging” applicants whose demographics warrant special attention, e.g. those from low income areas or from schools with a poor record of Oxbridge admissions, both Oxford and Cambridge are more likely to accept students whose applications have not been flagged.

The failure of both universities’ policies, which are intended to increase the number of disadvantaged and under-represented students at the institutions, appears to contradict guidance from Oxford that flagged applicants should be more likely to be shortlisted for interviews, as well as guidance from Cambridge that such students should be given special consideration in the selection process.

The disparity in the number of low-income students accepted at Oxbridge was most pronounced for prospective Cambridge students who applied from secondary schools with a poor record of sending students to Oxford and Cambridge. Applicants from such schools had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared with the success rate of 28.5 per cent for non-flagged applicants.

According to the OxPolicy investigation, applicants to Cambridge who are not accepted to the university at the same rate as non-flagged applicants include groups of students who live in deprived postcodes; those who have spent time in local authority care; those from schools with a low Oxbridge record; and those from geographic areas where relatively few people progress to higher education. OxPolicy’s statistical analysis demonstrates that if the success rates of these flagged applicants were matched with those of non-flagged applicants, Cambridge would admit an additional 275 students from under-represented demographics per year.

The research also found that at Oxford, students flagged for living in a deprived postcode, attending a school with a poor academic record, or attending a school with a poor record of sending applicants to Oxbridge were all less likely to be invited to interview at the university, and were less likely to receive an offer.

“Despite the universities insisting they are doing all they can to rectify their diversity crisis, our findings show a consistent bias against students from under-represented backgrounds,” said George Gillett, the lead researcher of the OxPolicy investigation. “Moreover, many of the admissions tutors we interviewed wanted to see their universities give greater consideration to contextual data, while evidence from other UK institutions shows that this would improve both the diversity and calibre of the universities’ student intake.”

The OxPolicy investigation included interviews of a collective 40 admissions tutors at Oxford and Cambridge in order to evaluate tutors’ attitudes and experiences towards the admissions process. Despite Gillett’s assertion that many tutors were advocates of increased contextualisation of student applications, the report cites “a general denial of responsibility among admissions tutors, who generally believed that the universities were doing all they could”. A press release from OxPolicy stated that in some cases, tutors did not view demographic under-representation as “a problem”, although two of the tutors interviewed expressed a belief that “a lottery would be fairer than the current system”. At least one tutor, however, contended that the demographic discrepancy in admissions was “a serious problem”—perhaps for the universities as well as for the students themselves.

“Many studies have shown that students from under-represented backgrounds out-perform their peers at university, even when they’ve achieved lower A level grades”, said Gillett.

In January 2016, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Samina Khan, made the claim that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are “more likely” to be invited to interview at the university—but the figures published on 30th April suggest otherwise.

“[Oxford and Cambridge] have previously suggested the limited diversity of their student intake results from the relatively fewer applications they receive from under-represented demographics. But these figures suggest the problem of under-representation also lies in the admissions process and attempts made by the universities to rectify discrepancies in success rates are failing,” concluded the OxPolicy statement.

The Oxford admissions data examined in the investigation includes all applicants to the University between 2009 and 2015. The Cambridge admissions data is based on the 2015 admissions cycle.

The full OxPolicy report is available at the OxPolicy website: www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

Image: Toby Ord