The danger of less advantaged students being put off Oxbridge | Letters

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‘If Oxbridge teaching is as good as the universities claim, why can’t they adapt their teaching to the needs of students with somewhat lower entry qualifications?’ asks Prof Colin Richards. Above Cambridge University. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA

Oxbridge has a diversity problem. The general public knows it, the students know it, and the university knows it. Underrepresentation seems to be the theme of the year, every year. But are our cries of outrage becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy? David Lammy’s article, based on evidence gathered from a freedom of information request, concludes that diversity at Oxford and Cambridge is not improving – in fact, it seems to be sliding backwards (Oxbridge still failing black pupils, 20 October; Going backwards: richer students from the south-east still dominate Oxbridge intake, 20 October). Once again, the image of suited Oxbridge professors staring down their noses at a working-class boy with a non-RP accent and scuffed trainers, clutching at crumpled pieces of paper in an attempt to wow some of the brightest minds in the county despite having no prior experience in a debating society, is substantiated.

But can Lammy really believe that his approach is going to create the change that Oxford and Cambridge have made marginal attempts to fulfil? Is it not worth wondering whether our mantra of elitism and privilege, while true, is turning applicants from diverse backgrounds away from the country’s finest educational facilities before they even consider applying? If we label Oxford and Cambridge as havens for the privileged, it is privileged students who will feel encouraged to apply. Cue vicious circle.

David Lammy, let me say this: for too long, we have allowed Oxford and Cambridge to function as elitist institutions, correct. Yet we have also allowed ourselves to forget the people who are a vital part of the solution. Your conclusion is correct, yet the tone and direction seems misplaced. We should not only be pressuring the universities to atone for their centuries of privileged sins, but also be empowering students across the country to consider themselves as capable of breaking into that privileged culture and counting themselves in for a shot. Let us stop being elitist in our debate, and also direct our dialogue at the students whose lives are the ones in question.

The fact is that we, as students, make the statistics. A place only becomes diverse by having people from diverse backgrounds in it. A significant part of that responsibility does lie with the universities themselves to create an inclusive environment that prioritises knowledge, not peerage or race. Yet, some of that responsibility can be taken into our hands, too.

As a girl from a low-income background, I was incredibly fortunate to have been educated in a state school that nurtured aspirations. From the age of 15, my progress reviews were taken by the deputy head teacher, and included discussions of the shining beacon that is Oxbridge. Having talked to numerous prospective students on outreach with Oxford’s Widening Access and Participation schemes, it is clear to me that, for so many capable students in the UK, this is not the case. Oxbridge is less of a shining beacon, and more of a menacing and distant tower that really does not bear thinking about because they are convinced that they will never even cross the moat. Access schemes, such as Target Oxford and Uniq, work on encouraging students to include Oxbridge in their aspirations, but, try as they might, the statistics do not seem to be improving. Such efforts certainly will not succeed if the rest of the population bundles Oxbridge into a cardboard box labelled “elitist”, and throws it into the attic.

Oxbridge has a diversity problem. It is evident that they themselves are failing to amend the skewed demographic housed within the college walls, and so, isn’t it time that we played our part, too? If we included prospective students in our discussions, then they would feel like prospective students. If we spent more time encouraging young people to allow themselves to be part of the solution, perhaps we would begin to see change. Revolution starts from the ground up.
Emily Roper
Mansfield College, Oxford

• David Lammy’s report entirely misses the point: it is schools and colleges that need to do more to identify bright but disadvantaged students and set about raising their aspirations.

Both Oxford and Cambridge do an exemplary amount of outreach to institutions such as mine (a large sixth-form college, with a socially diverse intake, on the outskirts of Southampton), but they often find that their events are poorly attended or don’t reach the right students.

We have recognised that we need to do much of the spadework ourselves – identifying disadvantaged students at enrolment and then “love-bombing” them with Cambridge supervisions, trips to the universities, academic mentors from outside the college community, support from alumni – the list goes on. In fact, well before enrolment takes place, we go out to our feeder schools and ensure students are aware of the subjects they should be taking to open the doors into the elite universities.

This has meant that our Oxbridge success rate has increased fivefold. In fact, the one and only black British A-level student accepted by Oriel in the past six years was one of ours.
Shoonagh Hubble
Barton Peveril Sixth Form College, Eastleigh, Hampshire

• I am the principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, which is not the least as was described. I myself come from a working-class background, did not go to Oxford and am very committed to social inclusion in education, especially in the traditional seats of privilege. Our proportion of state students this year is just under 90%, of whom a quarter come from educational/economic disadvantage. Our proportion of students from the north is 26% and, of those from London, many come from non-wealthy boroughs. Our proportion of BAME students is 22.7% of all our undergraduates and 15.5% of those are from the UK so that is above the national average.

None of this is accidental. We have had over 80% students from state schools for five years. It is result of conscientious work by my academics, who are committed to equal opportunities and many of whom came from comprehensive schools. They undertake outreach work, understand how to interview and read the evidence about candidates’ circumstances in a fair way. It is so important to us that every young person who wants to come to Oxford is not deterred.
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC
Mansfield College, Oxford

• I fear that the media focus on Oxbridge, while explicable, allows potentially worse offenders to get off too lightly. According to statistics in the latest report of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), of the 94% of privately educated pupils who go on to university, only 6% go to Oxbridge; 56% go to Russell Group universities. Bristol, Durham, Exeter and Nottingham all take more privately educated pupils than Oxford, which is fifth in the list; Edinburgh, Leeds, and UCL all take more than Cambridge, which is ninth.

I would be interested to see admissions statistics at those universities, and imagine that their vice-chancellors must feel themselves fortunate not to receive the media scrutiny that Oxbridge, despite its (I think) honest efforts to try to correct the imbalance in its admissions, constantly receives. Why do other universities, which might be worse offenders, get away without bad headlines?
Prof Paul Harper-Scott
Department of music, Royal Holloway, University of London

• Academics are indistinguishable from the rest of British society in their belief in social justice and meritocracy. If there was a quick fix to the problem of university admissions (not just Oxbridge) arising from the profile of applications created by an increasingly unequal British society and its unequal school system, I think that by now someone – be they an academic, an MP or a Guardian reader – would have found it out.

Legislation is a possibility. This would mean that (as is already the case in most UK universities) admissions were controlled by bureaucrats rather than academics, and since it would save an enormous amount of academic time (about three weeks of my life out of every 52), it has real attraction. But anyone who thinks we would change the structure of society by such means is like a Brexiter: voting for a mirage. In the meantime, the more we promote a purely mythical stereotype of a reactionary Oxbridge, the less likely it is that students who are not socially advantaged will apply to study there.
Peter Ghosh
Tutor in history, St Anne’s College, Oxford

• As someone from a working-class background, I profited greatly from my experience at Cambridge but I did not need the equivalent of three A*s to get a place. If Oxbridge teaching is as good as the universities claim, why can’t they adapt their teaching to the needs of students with somewhat lower entry qualifications?
Prof Colin Richards
Spark Bridge, Cumbria

• We have a school system where private education accounts for a huge percentage of those receiving offers and this is a system financially supported, indirectly, by those northern families (and others) who are not on the receiving end of top university offers. Lammy’s political party, when in power, could have changed this by removing charitable status. It did not. Will a Corbyn government be any different?
Dr Geoffrey Samuel
Blean, Kent

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