Oxbridge access is a failure, but where does the blame really lie?


With the recent release of A-level results, attention is turning once again towards Oxford and Cambridge and their disappointing admissions figures. Across the UK, over 559,030 applications were made to University in 2018, but this greater access to higher education nationally is not reflected at Oxbridge: the supposed pinnacles of British education.

The proportion of students identifying as black and minority ethnic (BAME) at Oxford University was just 18% in 2017: well below the national university average of 25%. The Labour MP David Lammy shined further light on the lack of diversity in Oxbridge earlier this year by obtaining statistics showing that 42% of Oxford’s undergraduates were from the private sector; despite only making up 7% of the national schooling sector. This makes Oxford the country’s worst university for state-school intake and Cambridge, while now admitting 62% of its students from the state sector, suffers from this same lack of diversity when compared to the UK average of 88.7%.


So where does the root of these inequalities lie? Why is it that state-schooled, socio-economically disadvantaged or BAME applicants are unwilling or unable to apply to these top institutions?


The finger has always been pointed at Oxbridge themselves and while the University’s efforts to improve access have been disappointing, they are improving. Outreach programs, contextual offers, a unique flagging system to identify disadvantaged students, and efforts to improve their perception to less privileged students mean the numbers are slowly improving.

While many individuals like to castigate both institutions for systematic discrimination, the root of the imbalances in Oxbridge goes much deeper than the application level.

Oxbridge is undoubtedly a rigorous seat of learning and as such, their courses require a foundation layer of knowledge and skills from its applicants in order to meet the degree’s stringent requirements. The responsibility of building up this foundation lies with the secondary and 6th form education sector, but with Tory cuts to state education totalling £2.8bn since 2015, it is unsurprising that schools are failing to adequately prepare their students.

Independent schools have the ability to invest in practice interviews, admissions tutors, testing services and tailored application advice which puts their applicants at an enormous advantage. The state sector however, with the countless budget cuts made under Tory austerity, have been less and less able to provide these resources to their own talented students.

Pupils aren’t being given access to the necessary resources at school and inspirational teachers, university advisers, and gifted and talented programs are more and more hard to come by as schools struggle to meet their basic teaching commitments. If the government was really serious about promoting access to Oxbridge, they would invest in the vast talent that exists in our state system, not cut away our school’s ability to nurture it.

Don’t get me wrong. There is an underlying racial inequality and a perception of privilege that must be tackled by both universities. Ideas such as foundation years are legitimate solutions that both universities – with their enormous endowments – can surely afford but they don’t address the years of second-rate education that our Government is forcing upon our schooling sector and its students.

It is our Government’s responsibility to give our brightest young minds the ability and resources to make a competitive application, regardless of their background or wealth, and with years of austerity;national education has suffered to the point where Oxbridge simply can’t accept students who, through no fault of their own, are not sufficiently prepared to take on an opportunity they undeniably deserve.


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