Oxford’s diversity drive extends to PhDs with applications to include class background

Camilla Turner
·3-min read
The pilot for PhD applications is the latest in a series of attempts by Oxford to boost diversity in its postgraduate intake 
The pilot for PhD applications is the latest in a series of attempts by Oxford to boost diversity in its postgraduate intake

Oxford’s diversity drive is extending to PhDs, it has emerged, with the university launching a trial where class background is included in applications.

Tutors will examine information about students’ socio-economic background as well as their academic credentials as part of a pilot which will run next autumn.

The university has long encouraged dons to make use of “contextual data” during the undergraduate admissions process in a bid to increase its intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

However, this is the first time a similar approach is employed for the selection of PhD candidates. Admissions tutors in five doctorate training programmes run by the science and medicine faculties will be given a series of indicators of a student’s class background to consider alongside their application. 

This will include whether they received free school meals at secondary school or the average take-up of free school meals at their school.

Prof Stuart Conway, an expert in organic chemistry at Oxford, said this information could prove useful when assessing a student’s academic potential beyond their performance in their first degree.

"Some students are working to support themselves throughout university – they will be on an upward trajectory if they are applying to us, but they may not have seen the full results [of what they can achieve],” he told the Times Higher Education magazine.

Being armed with this information may also level the playing field for poorer applicants who may not have been able to take up research placements that look attractive on CVs, according to Prof Gail Preston, director of the Interdisciplinary Bioscience doctoral training partnership.

"Many applicants will spend their summers going to different research groups and getting research experience, but others find it hard to do this,” she said.

As part of the trial, Oxford will anonymise elements of applications by removing the names and gender pronouns from applications before they are reviewed. This is part of a drive to boost gender equality and ensure students from ethnic minorities do not face discrimination.

“It is quite a work-intensive process, but we don’t really need someone’s name when they are applying,” Prof Conway said.

“The first time you read an anonymised CV, you intuitively try to guess whether it is a man or a woman, but you stop doing this quite quickly.”

He said he hoped anonymised CVs would encourage more ethnic minority students to apply to Oxford for postgraduate study.

Applicants will also fill in standardised forms, rather than submitting their own CVs. This move is intended to give tutors fairer and more consistent information.

“Some applicants leave out information that we would like to know about, while others have greater support when filling out these applications,” she said.

The pilot for PhD applications is the latest in a series of attempts by Oxford to boost diversity in its postgraduate intake.

The university also set up a paid research internship programme, a scheme that was due to take 100 students and graduates this summer before it was moved online because of coronavirus.

An Oxford University spokesman said: "This pilot scheme for doctoral training programmes forms part of the long-term, University-wide efforts to increase the number of promising postgraduate students from under-represented groups at Oxford.  

"We are making steady progress towards improving postgraduate access through a number of recently-introduced initiatives and will be announcing further new schemes very shortly."