Alan Rusbridger on building a more inclusive University of Oxford

An idea formed in a Dublin bar could help Oxford in its ambition to act with greater ‘agility and generosity’, says principal of Lady Margaret Hall

April 20, 2016
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Today we’re announcing a new pilot project at Lady Margaret Hall: a foundation year for students from under-represented backgrounds who might otherwise not find their way into the University of Oxford.

We’re intending to start it this autumn in the expectation of finding 12 exceptionally bright candidates who are interested in coming to Oxford, regardless of any obstacles they may have encountered so far in their lives.

Like many good ideas, this one started in a pub – a Dublin bar.

Last December I’d been asked to Trinity College Dublin to speak and receive a small award. Afterwards I ended up having a pint of Guinness in the Long Hall with the academic and journalist, Elaine Byrne, and the provost of Trinity College Dublin, Paddy Prendergast.

Over the second pint we ended up talking about the problem extremely sought-after universities often have in recruiting students from diverse, or “non-traditional”, backgrounds (reflecting, as we talked, about how difficult it is to get the language exactly right).

The problem is easily understood: nearly 20,000 young people apply for 3,200 places at Oxford. More than 4,000 UK students have grades of AAA+ or equivalent. Oxford has therefore raised the barrier in terms of starred A grades, while also creating its own aptitude tests and a “flagging” system to make sure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have a chance of getting at least an interview.

Quite an industry has sprung up to coach people on how to prepare for the assorted tests and interviews. I can’t say whether they are at all helpful, but one company offers an “Oxford preparation weekend” that will set you back £1,795. The question of what constitutes a “level playing field” is a complicated one.

Nearly 44 per cent of those admitted to Oxford went to independent schools, compared with 7 per cent of the country as a whole. But Oxford argues that independent schools produce a third of all those getting three As at A level.  There is, in other words, a problem earlier on in education. How much should a world-class university make adjustments to “correct” the wider failings of an education system?

 “We had that problem too,” Paddy said. “There were too many people who felt Trinity College Dublin was not for the likes of them. They were perfectly bright enough to study here – but were they yet ready? So we started an access programme. That was 17 years ago.”

The Trinity Access Programmes took young people with obvious potential who could demonstrate they had coped with, or battled against, some form of social or economic disadvantage.  They would be admitted with slightly lower grades than would be demanded of acceptance to an undergraduate degree and given nine months of intensive tuition.

The students are evaluated throughout the course. More than nine out of 10 succeed in winning an undergraduate place the following year. Once admitted, they perform as well as the rest of the student cohort. Since 1997, about 1,000 young and mature students have completed the foundation course.

“Why don’t you come back and see for yourself?” suggested Paddy.

A few weeks later, a group of us from Lady Margaret Hall was back in Dublin – and given extraordinary access to the people who had made the scheme such a success – along with quite a few of the people who had progressed through it.

We met extraordinary young people whose lives had been transformed by education, not one of whom would have had a chance of being admitted to the university via the conventional route. Some had been through the course for young people, some for more mature students. One was now a successful solicitor, one a reader in psychology. Another was training to be a surgeon, yet another is currently president of the Trinity College Dublin student union and is running for the senate.

This last student, Lynn Ruane, said this in her election manifesto: “As a child, I was bright and eager to learn. However, something happens to aspirational children growing up in underprivileged areas. As you move toward teenage years, you begin to recognise that your parents and neighbours aren’t doctors or pilots and that begins to shape your idea of what is expected of you. I left school at 16 as a young mother before returning to education via a community education project…[later] securing a place in Trinity College Dublin in 2011 through the Trinity Access Programme.”

The faculty members we met were also enthusiastic advocates for the scheme. One or two confessed to initial reservations, but said they had found the experience of teaching these young people deeply satisfying – and sometimes very challenging (in an entirely good way), forcing them to rethink some fundamental ideas of how to teach.

My colleagues liked the scheme very much. But would it work in Oxford? Here we had a stroke of good luck, in that Trinity College Dublin volunteered us the help of Cliona Hannon, who started the Trinity Access Programme 17 years ago and who has overseen it ever since.

We collected together all the possible questions from our own governing body – they stretched to 11 pages – and worked through them one by one with Cliona over two days.  We have spoken to colleagues in the wider university – faculties, central administration and some other colleges – and consulted with schools.

We became convinced that a version of the scheme could, indeed, work in Oxford.  The new vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson – herself a Trinity College Dublin graduate (“people from my background didn’t go to Trinity”) – recently told a Washington audience that she thought the collegiate structure of Oxford was well-suited to trying such pilots. She wanted Oxford to act with “agility and generosity in trying to ensure that children with the greatest potential have the chance to study at Oxford”.

All but three subjects volunteered to be involved in the first year. But it would need money. Lady Margaret Hall is truly fortunate in having alumni who feel great loyalty to the college. Two in particular – Neil Simpkins and Michael O’Sullivan – did not hesitate in making donations to ensure that the majority of the costs of the first two years (of the four-year pilot) were covered.

Why did they give? Neil, now a banker in New York, went to a comprehensive school in the North East. Michael, now the president of a US American clothing company, was from a second generation Irish migrant background. Both felt strongly that Lady Margaret Hall had been a transformative moment in their lives: they wanted others to benefit, as they had.

We were nearly there. Some were surprised by the speed at which we were moving.  But virtually everyone I spoke to privately – including a good many other heads of house – conceded that something needed to be done to improve the diversity of intake at Oxford.  Professor Richardson herself acknowledged in her Washington speech that the university’s success in outreach, while extensive and well-resourced, had been “limited”.

There is, in fact, a great deal of concern and hard thinking going on around the university about how to address the issue of under-represented groups. There are working parties here, breakfast groups there, consultation exercises over there. At least one other college is planning a kind of bridging course for students who might otherwise be “near misses”.

As Professor Richardson said, the advantage of a collegiate system is that small-scale pilots can help us understand better “what really works”.

The external reaction has so far been supportive. The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has welcomed it, as has the director of the Office for Fair Access, Les Ebdon. One of the areas of the country linked with Lady Margaret Hall is Haringey, whose MP, David Lammy, has also spoken warmly of the pilot scheme.

The scheme is obviously a tiny one in the wider context of Oxford and Cambridge. But, so far as I know, it’s the first time it’s been tried in Oxbridge – and we’re fortunate that Trinity College Dublin has agreed to be our partner in this pilot. 

Why Lady Margaret Hall? Well the college was founded in 1878 by a small committee of people who felt it simply wrong that a significant group in society – women – were excluded from an education at Oxford.  At the time, most of the wider university was unsympathetic to the experiment and, for 40 years, they refused to give women degrees. Lady Margaret Hall politely shrugged and got on with it.

The parallel today is not exact. But there are groups of young people today who are markedly under-represented at Oxford, even if it is not quite right to call them “excluded”. They are as bright, resourceful and determined as anyone who has succeeded in getting here, but many things may have conspired to stop them even considering Oxford as an option.

If we can devise a way of enabling such people to study at Oxford that seems to me to be entirely in keeping with our founding mission. Wish us luck.


Alan Rusbridger is principal of Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

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