The University of Oxford’s release of its undergraduate admissions statistics earlier this summer was met with a barrage of criticism. Despite making significant progress in some areas (for example, improving the proportion of students from state schools), in other areas such as ethnic diversity and the proportion of students from northern or working-class backgrounds, progress has been unacceptably slow.
Many of us at the university felt that the situation was hopeless: despite a great number of people already investing significant time in access and outreach, often on a voluntary basis, the efforts were clearly insufficient. Moreover, we perceived a risk that the statistics would just put off applicants from under-represented backgrounds from applying, worsening the imbalance rather than redressing it.
More than 1,100 current students decided to sign an open letter that was published in The Guardian. In it, we recognised that the university and its students must seek to make Oxford a fairer and more equal place. The hope was that this letter might reassure prospective applicants of the welcoming community here regardless of their background, and encourage those who have criticised the university to engage with students constructively to overcome the challenges.
Of course, that is much easier said than done. The university already pours vast sums of money into outreach programmes, including the UNIQ summer school that it recently expanded by 500 places. Students cannot hope to match the financial side but we can try to bridge the communication gap between aspiring young people and the institution.
The under-represented groups that we most want to encourage applications from are the hardest to reach. They are less likely to be engaged with the university’s outreach programmes, tend to be geographically disparate and may not know anyone who has attended Oxford (or indeed university elsewhere) and so struggle to relate. To effectively reach and engage with them will require novel ideas and, in many ways, students are best placed to deliver these.
One initiative that we are working towards is forming a community of students who give an hour of their time per term to visit a “target” school and speak to pupils about how Oxford works and what it’s like to study here. Even if only 10 per cent of Oxford’s student body were to take up this challenge, our hope is that it would increase the number of potential applicants by thousands.
Another is to develop a mentoring system in which prospective applicants from disadvantaged groups interact with current students from similar backgrounds prior to and during the admissions process. The aim would be to increase the retention rate between application and acceptance of offer.
Of course, doing more to engage current students and recent alumni in outreach will not solve all the challenges that Oxford (and perhaps the higher education sector in general) faces when it comes to diversity in undergraduate admissions. However, the hope is that our initiatives will encourage even more young people from diverse sectors of society to apply to Oxford.
Times are changing, and universities must change with them. While there is a long way to go, more than 1,000 current students have committed to doing what they can. That is surely a force to be reckoned with.