Why Oxford is right to spend more on low-income students

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The headline claim in The Guardian that Oxford spends £108,000 for each low-income student it attracts certainly raised a few eyebrows, most notably from the University itself, but the question remains: does it represent good value for money in the University? This money is spent on a wide variety of things, ranging from school visits to the UNIQ summer schools and, most notably, bursaries once such students arrive here. However, despite this astronomical spending, Oxford still ranks as one of the worst universities for inequality based on gender, race, and socio-economic background in the UK. 

Admissions from target groups have risen year on year but only by a miniscule amount, with just 220 people out of 5000 school leavers in the two most disadvantaged postcode categories who had Oxbridge qualifying A-Levels becoming Oxford students in 2015-16. Evidently there is still a lot of work to do. 

That said, Oxford clearly spends a lot of money and resources on outreach, with such money attempting to plug the divide between elite private schools (which for secondary and A-Level education can cost almost £200,000) and state schools in poorer regions of the country. Although not directly comparable, £108,000 looks like excellent value for money next to this figure, except the former almost guarantees you a place at Oxford, whilst the latter merely gives you the tools to apply. This is because the issue is not one of attainment – capable students with the grades simply aren’t applying to Oxford. But why? This is a question outreach programmes have to address, with perceptions of Oxford and the rigorous admissions process needing to be addressed to persuade young people to apply. 

Last year, whilst running an outreach class for secondary school students of colour in London, the students were asked what their perceptions of Oxford were. Their first response was rich, their second was white. This perception is broadly true; Oxford is a hub of privilege, and this can be alienating to people who don’t feel they would fit in here. As a result, that £108,000 is money well spent to ensure these talented people know they can, and should study here, and that they should apply. 

Despite this, Britain is an extremely unequal society, and the way this is reflected in our education is not the sole responsibility of Oxbridge, but the government. Given that “cash losses from the tax, welfare and wage reforms, under the coalition and conservative governments are largest for black households” we can see how poverty, a direct cause of educational underperformance, disproportionately affects those already unlikely to apply to Oxbridge. Austerity damages outreach, forcing children to get jobs whilst at school, or struggle for studying space in overcrowded housing, having a massive impact on the ability of such people growing up to apply to Oxford. 

Sceptics may still say that £108,000 is too much based on the gains Oxford gets in student numbers, but outreach programmes also encourage people to apply to other red brick universities where they may have not applied at all before, increasing education for all. The skills learned in summer schools, programmes and open days will also be useful for any student, not only Oxbridge applicants. Oxford spends £108,000 to combat inequality in our admissions process, but it is the government that is ultimately responsible for the existence of that inequality in the first place. In this regard, Oxford acts admirably, striving to provide access opportunities to those otherwise left behind by the system. Oxford should be praised for doing so; it is £108,000 well spent. But there is still plenty of work to do, both by the University, and at a national level.