Oxford University will not throw open its doors to non-traditional students unless academic standards in secondary schools improve, the university has warned in response to widening access proposals.
In a move likely to be interpreted as a defence of its recruitment practices, the university this week offered a qualified welcome to the Higher Education Funding Council for England's plans to widen access to higher education.
Oxford responded to the consultation: "The university wishes to emphasise that a necessary precondition of widening participation is the improvement of academic standards in many secondary schools. Unless young people have access to a good secondary education, it is unlikely they will be able to demonstrate the potential to benefit from a university course."
Oxford and Cambridge universities have faced increasing pressure from the government to shake off their elitist image and accept more state school students.
Oxford said it is vital that moves to attract non-traditional candidates "do not threaten existing admissions standards. The admission of underqualified candidates would inevitably cause serious problems". Oxford welcomed HEFCE's acknowledgement that it should be careful "not to penalise institutions for failing to be socially inclusive simply because they have particular entry requirements".
The university said that HEFCE must acknowledge "the diversity of missions among higher education institutions".
HEFCE's plans include special funding arrangements for 1999-2000. Additional student numbers will be on offer to reward widening access, as well as other special funding sources.
Oxford rejects HEFCE's planned changes to the mainstream teaching funding method, which would allow for additional payments for students from poorer backgrounds. This, said Oxford, was too "crude". Achievements in these areas, the university said, "would more effectively be recognised through specific project-based funding".
Oxford rejected any plan to set student number quotas. It said targets "must not be mechanistic" and quotas "can easily become self-fulfilling" and could lead to the admission of "students with lower academic ability than other candidates".
The university's submission to the consultation did stress that Oxford "is committed to ensuring that all suitably qualified candidates with the ability and potential to benefit from an Oxford undergraduate education are encouraged to apply for admission to the university". Oxford has its own working party on access, chaired by the vice-chancellor.
HEFCE said that the results of consultation on additional student numbers will be announced in March 1999. Consultation ends on December 4.