On 6th November, Louis Richardson, Vice Chancellor at the University of Oxford, held an open discussion with students at the university about the problems surrounding access and diversity.
The Q&A was organised by Ben Fernando, a postgraduate student at the university.
The Vice Chancellor opened up the conversation by saying that access was one of her primary items on the agenda when it comes to improving the university. She argued that the access data was released in order to be able to hold a transparent conversation on the issue
However, responding to criticism, Richardson acknowledged that the rate of increase of applicants from an underprivileged background is too slow. She gave several reasons for this, raising problems such as early education and teachers discouraging pupils from applying. She also argued that many disadvantaged students who are given offers to study at Oxford don’t take up their offers, citing that 20% of those made offers through the Uniq summer schools programme don’t take up their offers.
An issue was also raised about how access currently is split between many different bodies, including colleges and students. Co-ordination is something that the audience were looking for. One studentin the audience asked: “what incentive are you going to give to colleges which are good at access to continue to be good at access?”
Attendees at the panel event showed a particular focus on the question of graduate access. The pro-vice chancellor responded to this by discussing a new working group on graduate access, which has recently had its first meeting. A particular problem was raised about the application fee to apply for graduate courses at Oxford, which is reportedly £75 for application to Oxford, compared to a £50 fee for application to Cambridge, while most universities in the UK have no fee at all.
Asked whether that fee should be scrapped, Richardson argued that there should be a waiver, and that she would “look into” making one, but that the fee should be kept to prevent frivolous applications.
An anonymous student told The Oxford Student: “The Vice Chancellor seemed to have a very defeatist attitude. She pointed to all sorts of reasons for the uni having a problem with access, but none of them problems with the university itself.
“I accept that earlier stages of education, etc, have a huge role to play in stopping underprivileged students from applying, but the university is still in a position to do something, and can’t just pass the blame onto other institutions.
“When it was pointed out the disparity between colleges, and the subsequent effect of this on access, given that so much of access work is run by colleges, she just seemed to shrug her shoulders and suggest that nothing could be done.”
Ben Fernando, who set up the Q&A and earlier this year drafted an open letter responding to access concerns, told The Oxford Student: “I was glad to get a really diverse audience who asked questions and posted suggestions on a wide range of access and diversity issues. I’m hopeful that some of the ideas that we discussed will get put in place over time, and that we’ll be able to do things like this again in the future, as they’re a great way for students to engage with the University’s decision makers”.