An unravelling of the Oxford admissions process and an investigation into affects of access and outreach programmes.

Six months ago, Oxford University released its 2023 Annual Admissions Statistical Report. The report outlines the demographics of admissions from the last four years by factors including socio-economic background, ethnicity, education, and region. 

In the foreword, Vice Chancellor Professor Irene Tracey wrote that “it is encouraging to see that steady progress continues to be made to ensure that those with the highest academic potential, from all backgrounds, can realise their aspirations to study here.”

To what extent is this the case though? The Oxford admissions process has long been touted as competitive, rigorous, and even intimidating. Yet in recent years, as an increasing number of students from diverse backgrounds have entered higher education, particularly into competitive institutions like Oxford, conversations about access and outreach have come to the fore. 

Statistically, there has been an increase in students admitted from state schools by around 7.6% since 2018. Despite this increase, the state school intake in 2023 was still only 68.1%, far from the 93% of students who attend state-funded schools.

A closer look at the 2023 admissions report.

The report itself reveals a few key things about how Oxford views access and outreach. Firstly, there is no distinction between state-funded comprehensive schools and state-funded grammar schools in Oxford’s statistical overview. The category of ‘state school’ includes competitive academies and grammar schools as well as FE institutions, comprehensive schools, and sixth form colleges. 

The 2023 Houses of Parliament Research Briefing defines grammar schools as selective, with all or most of their pupils chosen on the basis “of their academic ability, usually at age 11.” In January 2022, around 5.3% of state-funded secondary pupils were attending grammar schools.

Distributions of grammar schools follow the patterns of regional disparity that appear in Oxford’s admissions statistics. The North East is the only region in the UK not to have any grammar schools, whilst the South East dominates with 12% of secondary pupils in grammar education. 

Perhaps this could explain why the North East makes up only 2.2% of total UK applicants to Oxford, whereas the South East and London combined make up 47.3%, as grammar and independent schools, disproportionately located in the South, often push for further education at the most competitive universities.

Due to a seeming lack of clarity in the statistics report, The Oxford Blue approached the University to request statistics relating to state-comprehensive and state-grammar admissions. The University responded that they do not have a target based on school type. Instead, they use “postcode areas for socio-economic disadvantage and historic under-representation in higher education (ACORN and POLAR)”, as well as “verified Free School Meal eligibility data from UCAS.” 

This is further contextualised using GCSE and A-Level results of the school attended. The University said that this is because “Oxford’s access priorities focus on socio-economic disadvantage, for which school type is a poor proxy.”

To a certain extent, this is a valid method of contextualisation. Disadvantaging circumstances which constitute barriers to Oxford applications are multi-faceted, and the measures of socio-economic disadvantage used by the University are useful in evaluating this. 

However, if there is no contextualisation based on school type, admissions statistics can be misleading when categorising selective and non-selective state schools together. Looking at Shropshire, for instance, Newport Girls’ Grammar School admitted 2 students to Oxford in 2022 in a year group of around 120, whereas the Shrewsbury Colleges Group, a Sixth Form college, admitted 6 students to Oxford in the same year with a year group of roughly 1,900. While the non-selective sixth form admitted more people, only 0.3% of their year group was admitted in comparison to the grammar school which admitted 1.6% of their pupils.

Furthermore, school type influences one’s experience of applying to Oxford. In selective schools, there tends to be greater emphasis placed on pathways to higher education. There also tend to be more staff and alumni with experience in Oxbridge applications able to provide targeted support. 

This means that in lower-income or underrepresented geographical areas, comprehensive and grammar schools could come under many of the same contextual factors, despite being potentially very different educational experiences. Presently, it is unknown how much of the current 68.1% is made up of students educated in state comprehensives.

Is there a need for standardisation across colleges?

Across both course and college, there is variation in socio-economic disadvantage and school type. For ACORN categories 4 and 5 (the least advantaged areas), the average percentage admitted is 16.3% However, this spans a range from Worcester College at 24.7%, to Oriel College at 11.2%. This demonstrates a lack of standardisation between colleges. The collegiate system distributes power away from the central university which leads to disparities in areas like the diversity of undergraduates admitted. 

Mansfield College, in particular, is already in line with the national average of students in state-funded education, admitting 93.2% state-schooled students. This is in comparison with 55.4% at New College, the lowest college for the state-educated proportion of UK students admitted. These differences beg the questions of what differences between colleges are producing such varying results, and whether numbers like Mansfield’s can be replicated. 

What is the role of access programmes in applications?

Prior to starting at Oxford, a number of current students have participated in access programmes designed to give applicants from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds assistance in the application process. But are these access programmes really accessible?

The statistics ostensibly suggest so. Over the last five years, the proportion of state schoolers at Oxford has risen by 7.6% since 2018 and during the same period, attendance at access programmes has also increased.

Opportunity Oxford, a residential bridging programme for state-school offer holders, admitted 231 applicants in 2022, more than double that of 2020. Similarly, in 2022 UNIQ summer school reached almost 1,500 applicants in comparison to the 2018 intake of 850. While these programmes may be a contributing factor in boosting the percentage of state school applications in recent years, whether these programmes are truly accessible can be contested.

A current student who attended Opportunity Oxford noted that she was one of few Northern students in attendance in 2022, and that the overwhelming proportion of students were from London or the South-East. She claimed, “I have friends from other deprived areas in the North-East who were not invited to it or were even unaware it existed”. The way in which students are selected for this access scheme is rather unclear, beyond the fact selected students are from typically underrepresented backgrounds. Yet if that is the case, why are some students from disadvantaged backgrounds chosen over others? 

Nonetheless, the programme seemingly had an overwhelmingly positive response from the majority of students. One student remarked, “I would have never travelled to Oxford before freshers week if I had not taken part in Op Ox”.

After interviewing a group of students from the Seren Network summer school, specifically for state-school students in Wales, The Blue found an equally positive response. 

Despite not applying to Oxford, one student felt that the summer school experience “helped me a lot with interview technique…it also massively boosted my confidence in my own abilities. Being from a state-school, competitive universities felt a bit out of my reach, but after the experience at Oxford I felt like I could be taken seriously in those sorts of environments”. In this sense, summer schools can act as a way to “overturn the ‘posh’ and ‘private school’ stereotype Oxford has”, as one student remarked, which is something that is hard to achieve remotely.

Yet, while summer schools targeted at state-school students provide a free, inclusive experience, they are not the only form of summer school to exist. Institutions like Oxford Summer Courses (OSC) and the Oxford Royale Academy (ORA) run similar experiences, albeit with starting prices of £5895 for the former and £5995 for the latter. 

The ORA summer school offers students a two week stay at an Oxford College where students allegedly receive an authentic taste of student life in Oxford, from attending lectures to dining in the college hall. Such prices exclude many potential applicants, rendering these schemes exclusive and elitist. Christ Church, Brasenose, Lady Margaret Hall, Somerville, St. Anne’s, St Edmund’s Hall, and Worcester all host OSC, and St Catherine’s hosts the ORA.

How can the admissions system be reformed further?

The Covid-19 pandemic forced a change to the decades-old procedure of inviting students to Oxford to complete their interviews. Instead, interviews were conducted online, via Microsoft Teams. Now, moving past the pandemic this practice has been continued, a decision which has prompted mixed reactions.

The technological barriers of running online interviews, from internet connection complications, to not having access to a quiet working space, are all valid criticisms of the system. The university has some advice on offering supporting technology, such as stylus pens which are not always accessible as many sixth forms do not provide them. They are used for many STEM-based interviews depending on which college one applies to.

By contrast, many of the students we asked commented that the anxiety of the interview was reduced by the home environment. They also remarked on being able to fit the interview around other commitments, such as part-time work shifts. One student speculated, “I can imagine I’d be a lot more nervous with an in-person interview, especially with the stress of travelling all the way to Oxford from home, which would’ve taken a good few hours.”

On a broader level, the use of remote interviews proves that changes can be made to adapt the system, but it is perhaps time to consider this outside of just pandemic-related reform. 

A more innovative and active approach to the system in general could offer more solutions to solve the issue of Southern regional dominance and the proportion of state-funded students. For instance, in 2022 only 72 students were admitted to Oxford from the North East whereas 485 were admitted from the South East with an additional 739 from London alone. 

This could be actioned through using the examples and methodologies of colleges that are currently performing above average in terms of access criteria for admissions. Cambridge’s additional application form that goes alongside your UCAS application to provide further information is an example of how Oxford could adapt to better contextualise the complex and varying barriers throughout the application process. More than anything, an active effort standardised by the university across colleges is necessary, as simply leaving the system the same is offering slow results in terms of increasing the diversity of the undergraduate student body. 

Access and outreach work for Oxford is far from complete, and a more critical and evaluative approach is needed for the future.
To access the full 2023 Undergraduate Admissions Report: https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/facts-and-figures/admissions-statistics/undergraduate-students