Oxford refuses to reveal ethnic poll findings

Consultation is part of university's drive to increase minority student numbers. Melanie Newman reports

April 24, 2008

The University of Oxford is refusing to release the findings of a consultation on ethnic minorities' perceptions of the institution on which its new recruitment strategy will be based.

The university commissioned public relations company Weber Shandwick in 2007 to carry out the survey of black and minority ethnic schoolchildren, students, university staff, and of specialist sector media, across Britain. The results will inform the university's strategy to recruit and retain more BME students, who are underrepresented among Oxford's undergraduates.

The university summarised the report's findings in 18 sentences in a pamphlet. The summary reveals some dissatisfaction with Oxford. BME media said the university "did not understand its audiences", while schools said that minority ethnic students feared that they would not fit in socially or culturally.

Students said that some teachers discouraged applications and highlighted a lack of strong role models.

The outline findings also said that while Oxford staff showed "genuine concern" and "openness to change", they emphasised that the university was "not in a position to compromise in the qualifications required for students to gain a place".

Times Higher Education has applied for access to the full findings under the Freedom of Information Act. An Oxford spokeswoman said: "People took part in the consultation on the understanding that their comments would not be shared outside the university."

The summary was discussed at a reception last week hosted by Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Elizabeth Fallaize, Oxford's pro vice-chancellor for education. The audience at the reception welcomed the university's commitment to increase BME recruitment, and there was much discussion about why minority ethnic students with adequate qualifications did not apply to Oxford.

But Penny Bagshaw, head of sixth form at Langley Grammar School in Slough, whose students apply and are often rejected, complained that the school was receiving less feedback on reasons for rejection than in the past.

"These are very bright students with good grades," she said.

Mr Guru-Murthy raised the possibility of a "two-tier" Oxford, with BME students feeling comfortable applying to some colleges but not to others. "You wouldn't catch me hanging around colleges like Christ Church and Pembroke," said one current Oxford student. "If students feel like that, you have an uphill task," Mr Guru-Murthy said.

A university spokesman told Times Higher Education: "We have done analysis to suggest that based on the number of black students (with 3 As at A-level) nationally, which is small, they are statistically overrepresented at Oxford."

Another factor is subject choice, she added. The two most popular subjects for BME applicants are medicine and economics and management. "These are Oxford's two most popular subjects, with an average success rate of only 13.1 per cent for medicine and 14.5 per cent for economics and management.

"BME students are therefore disproportionately applying for the most competitive subjects and this is affecting their average success rate," the spokeswoman said.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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