When asked to explain why they gained admission to the University of Oxford, the institution’s students offer a simple explanation: “Because I’m worth it.”
That’s the impression you get from reading a British Educational Research Journal paper by academics from Harvard University and Oxford, which says that the latter’s undergraduates “reproduce social inequality” by professing that they won their places on merit alone.
Most of those interviewed for the paper downplay the importance of their school or social background – despite many admitting that educational opportunities play a major role in student attainment.
Just 7 per cent of UK schoolchildren are privately educated, but among Oxbridge undergraduates the figure is 40 per cent. However, 80 per cent of those interviewed believe Oxford’s admissions are “meritocratic”, says the paper by Natasha Kumar Warikoo, associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and Christina Fuhr, a research student at Oxford’s department of sociology.
Satisfaction with the status quo means that Oxford students are unlikely to tackle the “dearth” of state school or ethnic-minority students at Oxbridge once they graduate and take public roles, the authors argue.
In fact, students are less worried about fair access than their tutors, says the paper, “Legitimating status: perceptions of meritocracy and inequality among undergraduates at an elite British university”.
Most of the 46 undergraduates interviewed say that admissions tutors should not take applicants’ social backgrounds into account when making offers, despite the widespread use of “contextual data”.
While many lament how poor schooling could prevent poor students from attending good universities, they do “not make connections to the advantages that they themselves enjoyed in the admissions contest”, the paper says.
Only 37 per cent of those interviewed feel that social class should be a factor in admissions. Most “acknowledge the minimum necessary to explain stratification” because criticising the system could endanger their “self-worth”. These “future leaders place responsibility outside the gates of elite higher educational institutions”, the paper concludes, adding that such an attitude “reproduces social inequality”.
An Oxford spokeswoman said that contextual data were already used in admissions, while many private entrants were scholarship students from low-income families.
While private schools account for 7 per cent of all UK schoolchildren, they provide 33 per cent of those achieving AAA at A level, she added.