SU VP for access: “It’s time for a clear access strategy”

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Lucas Bertholdi-Saad is Oxford SU’s Vice-President for Access & Academic Affairs.

It seems there is an article about access to Oxford every week in the OxStu – but you don’t need the evidence from the student press to tell us that students at Oxford are passionate about access and widening participation. Students help colleges and departments as open day helpers and access ambassadors, our student societies work with the university to hold access conferences, and answer all the questions from friends, family, and old teachers about Oxford, access and what it’s like. In the past term and a half, I’ve signed around 250 SU Access Recognition Certificates, letting students know that their efforts are appreciated. 

Oxford students with a passion for access have a unique chance. The Office for Students (OfS), the new national regulator for universities, has made it very clear: every university has to set out what they will do to close access gaps. Access isn’t limited to admissions, either – the ‘Access & Participation Plans’ (APPs) have to cover how admitted students do on course, and what degrees they leave with, as well as just who gets in. The APPs should set out five years of ambition, and the Office for Students (it’s in the name) is keen to make sure students are involved in creating them. 

It won’t be a surprise, but Oxford faces more challenges than most other universities on access. The Times has called Oxford the least socially inclusive university in the UK based on school backgrounds, with 60% of our students coming from independent or grammar schools (against just 20% nationally). And as we see a lot in the news, despite a lot of progress we aren’t there yet on ethnic diversity. 

What this means, though, is that we have a great opportunity now to set out a student vision on where we need to be – and a great opportunity to work with the University and the Colleges to make sure we all get there together. 

The Times has called Oxford the least socially inclusive university in the UK based on school backgrounds”

Over the past 6 months, I have been gathering student views on access, as well as doing a deep dive on the data around Oxford and the policies that might help. Last month, students made up half the panel on the first Oxford SU Access Conference, where they were able to engage directly with Samina Khan, Oxford’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions & Outreach, and Chris Millward, Director of Fair Access at the OfS. Drawing from that event as well as our online Access Consultation and discussion with common room presidents, access officers and campaigns, I’ve presented in fifth week SU Council our student vision for access to Oxford and the Access & Participation Plan. If you want to read the whole thing, it is available on the SU website – but these are the key points:

Starting on access, it’s important to set ambitious targets on the lines the OfS is asking for, which uses POLAR4 (a measure of progress into higher education based on geography). It is obvious though that this is far from the only access gap at Oxford. One of our worst gaps is around offer rates by ethnicity, where British Asian students in particular receive far fewer offers than their A-levels and course choice would suggest. We need to close this gap, to be sure that we are running a visibly fair admissions process and creating a diverse student body. Students have also made it clear – we need a target that deals with the educational disadvantage applicants can face, that includes the state-private divide but also recognises the educational advantage that students can get at grammar schools and selective academies. To get to where we want to be, including on regional diversity, recognising personal circumstances such as leaving the care system, and properly dealing with socio-economic disadvantage, the university needs to take a careful look at how we admit. We have to make sure all steps are transparent and fair, and support new routes such as bridging programmes and an expanded foundation year.  

“We need to close this gap, to be sure that we are running a visibly fair admissions process and creating a diverse student body.”

On the side of participation and on-course success, the SU is calling for targets to close the degree awarding gaps (attainment gaps) by ethnicity and disability, but also to close the gender gap. Closing ethnicity and disability degree awarding gaps are part of the OfS’ national objectives, and Oxford does particularly badly in our disability gap. But as we have seen, not all gaps are national – across the country, women get more firsts than men when they leave university.  That isn’t the case at Oxford, and we have a significant degree awarding gap by gender that needs to close. The solutions on degree awarding gaps – anticipatory adjustments, diversification of assessment, and inclusive teaching, really do have the potential to benefit all students.  

Finally, don’t forget that the SU is articulating this vision for all students – if you have thoughts on what our access vision should look like, you can fill in our consultation or send me an email directly: [email protected] . 

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