University access statistics disguising the truth


The Oxford Student and newspapers across the country reported just over a month ago that a record-breaking 69% of Oxford University offers have gone to state school students. However, are these offers reflecting the make-up of the students who actually get admitted to the university?
Dr Nuala Burgess of King’s College London warns against assuming that the increase in offers to disadvantaged students will lead to real change amongst the student body. “Although this is undoubtedly good news for people who believe in social mobility and social justice, offers are very different to places”, she explains.
When looking closer at Oxford’s admissions statistics, it is clear that offers are very different to places. Despite the increased number of offers going to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, these students are much less likely to actually make the grades and be admitted into the university. Only 76% of Oxford offer holders from socio-economically disadvantaged groups were admitted in 2018, compared with 86% across the board.
Lanisha Butterfield, Communications Manager for Education and Admissions at the University of Oxford, told the Oxford Student that “these issues are not specific to Oxford or Oxbridge” and that “gaps in attainment are a societal issue that need to be addressed by schools, government and universities collectively, it cannot be solved by any one entity alone. Having said this, Oxford does support students from disadvantaged backgrounds with achieving the requirements of their conditional offer and we plan to do more in this area.”
This problem is particularly evident at particular colleges and with particular courses. Only 64% of offer holders from disadvantaged backgrounds took up their place for Biological Sciences between 2016-18, compared with 84% for more advantaged offer holders. Furthermore, at Mansfield College, which admitted the highest proportion of students from disadvantaged areas (ACORN categories 4 and 5) between 2015 and 2017, 86% of advantaged holders took up their places from 2016-18, whereas only 66% of disadvantaged students did so.
While the ability to take up an offer is not in every case down to meeting the required grades, this is the most common reason for not being able to take up a place at Oxford. Lanisha Butterfield tells the Oxford Student that “across the sector students from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to meet the required grades of their conditional offer compared with students from less advantaged backgrounds”. Despite this, Oxford does not, in general, make lower offers to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, although they did announce last year that they intended to make fifty lower-than-usual offers based on contextual circumstances.
In order to try and combat these issues, the Foundation Oxford programme, launched last year, aims to bridge the gap between the typically lower attainment of students from under-represented backgrounds and the very high academic standards of Oxford University. The scheme aims to open up places to students with high academic potential who, for reasons beyond their control, are not yet in a position to make a competitive Oxford application. Eligible students could include refugees, children in care or those with care responsibilities themselves. Once in operation, offers for Foundation Oxford will be made on the basis of lower contextual A-level grades, rather than the University’s standard offers.
Oxford University’s Access and Participation Plan also includes targeted outreach for Black and Minority Ethnic Students, who make up 22% of undergraduate arrivals in the 2019-20 admissions cycle, up from 18% last year. However, again the disconnect between offers and places is clear. Only 76% of offer holders with Black African or Black Caribbean heritage were admitted to Oxford in 2018, compared with 89% of white students.
The hailed 69% of offers going to state school students also covers up the divide between those going to students at state grammar schools, and those going to students at state comprehensives. Despite some individual colleges keeping statistics about the proportions of their intake from each type of school, Oxford University does not release any such statistics.
Lanisha Butterfield explains to the Oxford Student that this is because “looking at an applicant’s school type in isolation is not an accurate measure of whether a student comes from a disadvantaged background”.


Image credit: University of Oxford website,,

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