Is there really “social apartheid” in Oxford admissions? – Implications of data uncovered by David Lammy

Ever feel like everyone at Oxford is from London? Or at least say they’re from London so as not to confuse clueless northerners with alien territories such as ‘High Wycombe’, ‘Crawley’, or the most fabled of them all – ‘Guildford’. Well, truth is, that’s because they kind of are. Taking the almost unanimously stretched definition of ‘London’ as meaning all of Greater London and the Southeast, on average approximately half of all offers made to applicants from England over the past five years have been given to students from ‘London’. 

For the more visual among us, Wikipedia and a calculator has allowed the presentation of this staggering statistic another way. People living within a 7,980 square mile area were given the same number of Oxford offers as those living in the remaining 42,350 square miles of the country. That’s half the Oxford offer-holders from England living in about one seventh of our land mass. Although we do History, we’re aware of crazy concepts such as population density, so yes, obviously more people are concentrated in ‘London’ than anywhere else.  

But this does not nearly account for the massive disparity. Coming from Manchester, where 64 offers (a fairly high figure for a northern local authority) were made between 2010-2015, it is little wonder Oxford can feel disconcerting, suddenly questioning whether everyone from London must be extraordinarily clever, when 333 offers were made in the same period to students from Richmond upon Thames, which has a population almost one third of the size of that of the City of Manchester. 

Unless this latest data acts as a wake-up call, it seems clear that more bright 18 year-olds will consider Oxford then decide it’s not a place for ‘people like them’. 

David Lammy’s recent uncovering of this data, along with other shocking figures relating to racial and socioeconomic inequalities in Oxbridge admissions, confirms to the minority of regional, BME, and first-generation students at this university what they already felt – that they are grossly under-represented, that they don’t fit in. When there are more offer-holders from five of the Home Counties than the whole of the North of England, is it really that surprising that northerners get excited when they meet someone else who says ‘bath’ rather than ‘barth’? Having spent the last two years in Oxford, a place where the entire world beyond the Watford Gap seems to melt into nothingness, it’s a sad reality that someone from Newcastle feels the comfort of home on hearing the dulcet tones of a passing Scouser on Broad Street. 

Of course, much of this data reflects existing inequality across Britain. Nine of the top ten areas for life expectancy in Britain are in or around London, while the bottom ten are all in the North or Scotland. These are clearly structural problems, but Oxford should be a place that can help to change them. Instead, the opposite is true. Beating off stiff competition for the most depressing statistic of them all, is the fact that Oxford is actually going backwards in its socioeconomic representation, with 79 percent of 2010 offer holders from the top two social classes, and 82 percent in 2015. 

What can be done about this scandalous state of affairs? Lammy makes some sensible suggestions which are worth pursuing, but as ever, the biggest problem is a cultural one. Complacency needs knocking away at every level, including among current students. More of us need to get involved with access work, not just those who benefited from such programmes in the past. Colleges need a culture of outreach from top to bottom – and yes, this means if you’re from the one of those five Home Counties (Surrey, Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, Kent and Buckinghamshire), think about making the trip up to Rochdale as well as to Richmond upon Thames. Take part in access programmes and make school visits to under-represented regions, rather than going back to your old school to help out those already benefiting from a rigged system. 

Too often, broader socioeconomic inequality is blamed for Oxford’s admissions shame. We don’t deny this exists – it very much does – but it is no excuse for a university that claims to make offers on the basis of merit alone. Just two colleges, Mansfield and Wadham, offer over half of their total places to applicants from state comprehensives and sixth form colleges. As prospective applicants we thought twice about Oxford on the basis of its social elitism; unless this latest data acts as a wake-up call, it seems clear that more bright 18 year-olds will consider Oxford then decide it’s not a place for ‘people like them’.