Universities of Oxford and Cambridge ‘failing poor students’, says think tank report

Admissions tutor tells researchers 'a lottery would be fairer than the current system', as both universities respond to the findings

Aftab Ali
Student Editor
Tuesday 03 May 2016 16:58
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Oxbridge universities are failing in their mission of taking on students from poorer backgrounds, new research has claimed.

According to Freedom of Information figures, despite ‘flagging’ students whose applications warrant special attention, Cambridge and Oxford universities are more likely to accept an ‘unflagged’ applicant.

This effect has emerged as being the most pronounced for Cambridge applicants from schools marked as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge.

Applicants from those schools had a success rate of 18.6 per cent, compared to a success rate of 28.5 per cent of non-flagged applicants.

Those applying to Cambridge who live in deprived postcodes are not accepted at the same rate as non-flagged applicants, say researchers, while, at Oxford, students from similar backgrounds are less likely to be invited to interview, or receive an offer, by the university.

The findings have been published by OxPolicy - a think tank made up of undergrad and postgrad researchers at the University of Oxford - which has said this goes against Oxford’s guidance which says flagged applicants should be more likely to be shortlisted for interview, while Cambridge advises its tutors to give special consideration to such students also.

OxPolicy also interviewed 40 admissions tutors at the universities on their own perceptions and experiences and said that, although the report highlights how “a general denial” of responsibility among admissions tutors shows universities to be doing “all they could,” in some cases, tutors didn’t see under-representation as being an issue.

However, one tutor did express a belief that “a lottery would be fairer than the current system,” while another blamed senior university staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’, which refuses to admit they have a serious problem.”

Lead researcher of the investigation, George Gillett, said that, despite the universities insisting they are doing all they can to “rectify their diversity crisis,” OxPolicy’s findings have shown a “consistent bias” against students from under-represented backgrounds.

Mr Gillet added: “Many of the admissions tutors we interviewed wanted to see their universities give greater consideration to contextual data, while evidence from other UK institutions shows this would improve both the diversity and calibre of the universities’ student intake.

“Many studies have shown students from under-represented backgrounds out-perform their peers at university, even when they’ve achieved lower A-level grades.”

A spokesman for Cambridge told the Independent the university welcomed the fact students are engaging in debate about widening participation, and said the report focussed on the use of “contextual data” in admissions decisions.

He said: “We introduced a contextual data flagging system several years ago to ensure the achievements of students from disadvantaged backgrounds are assessed in their full context and that students with great academic potential are identified.

“We regard this measure as an important element of our approach to widening participation and we will continue to review its effect on our admissions.”

He also said Cambridge’s admissions tutor, subject convenor, and interviewer training programmes ensure the institution’s decision-makers understand what contextual flags mean, and how they should be used.

The spokesman concluded: “We aim to widen participation further whilst maintaining high academic standards and as far as patterns of national attainment allow.”

The 20 hardest universities to get into

A spokesperson for Oxford told the Independent the university “disagrees fundamentally” with the basis of the report’s analysis and with its conclusions.

The spokesperson added: “Highlighting the views of a small minority of colleagues from the many involved in admissions across Oxford masks the fact that we are making good progress towards increasing the proportion of students with disadvantaged backgrounds.

“More than 34 per cent of UK applicants we accept are from the socio-economically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds we target, which we have identified in our access agreement with the Office for Fair Access.”

OxPolicy’s findings have come shortly after The Sutton Trust called on Oxbridge universities to simplify their “intimidating and complex” application processes for fear bright students from low-income backgrounds were being discouraged from applying.

The Social Market Foundation also cautioned last month how the Government is on course to miss its own “ambitious” targets for widening participation in higher education by 2020, further highlighting “significant differences” between institutions’ intake of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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