If Oxbridge is the only solution, we’re asking the wrong questions

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A few weeks ago HEPI’s Nick Hillman made a splash in the debate by arguing in the Guardian that new colleges should be founded at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

In some key respects, the article is right. It usefully and succinctly explains the difference between fair access and widening participation, the former is about fair admissions such as eliminating racism (conscious or otherwise), and the latter is about creating a higher education system that provides more places, ensuring that more students can benefit from university. Drawing attention to the deficiencies of focusing resources on bursaries is also valid.

But, after that, we have to strongly disagree.

The Oxbridge distraction

Hillman’s proposed solution is for the endowment of more Oxbridge colleges to solve UK HE’s access problems. Firstly, it’s ridiculous to suggest that any government money should be used for expansion at institutions whose vast wealth dwarfs that of other. Those two universities already receive massively more in private donations than other universities. If Oxford or Cambridge want to expand, they can, and they can pay for it themselves. The mechanism doesn’t much matter, as long as it’s not coming from the public purse.

While we’re here, we also need to debunk the myth of the cost of the tutorial system at Cambridge and Oxford. It has been regularly asserted that it costs far more than £9,000 to teach undergraduates in these universities, perhaps as much as double. Take claims like this with a pinch of salt.

If you add together all the costs of a college, including the gardens, the cellars, the artworks and the maintenance of listed buildings, as well as the teaching, then divide that by the number of students then you get to a high number. There’s also complex cross-subsidies (across courses, and between teaching and research) to take into account. But this masks the roles that endowments play – and must play, given their use for education – in covering costs. And there are also plenty of games that are played to make college accounts to make the costs look higher.

We shouldn’t let this kind of bluster go unchallenged. It’s curious that Hillman didn’t return to his earlier (and well founded) scepticism about this figure, before repeating the fiction.

Ok, so you don’t like Oxbridge as the solution? Then what about expanding numbers across the whole Russell Group? This solution has other limitations. The experience of students at universities which have taken advantage of the uncapping of numbers has not been altogether positive. Some Russell Group institutions have terrible NSS scores and creaking estates. It would be easier to make a case for university expansion to widen participation if we could be confident that the engorged institutions would be able to teach effectively, and support students properly while studying. Elsewhere on Wonkhe today, we provide a model to demonstrate why simply expanding the Russell Group would barely make a dent on wider educational inequalities.

What’s the right question?

First, let’s consider the evidence that a university education, in-and-of-itself, seems to make a fairly trivial impact on life chances. We’ve seen various reports (see Sutton Trust or IFS) which show the entrenched nature of social inequality and its relationship (or lack thereof) to academic and professional attainment. This doesn’t mean that universities don’t have a role to play in supporting upward social mobility. Widening participation is part of this answer. But there’s a deeper social problem before university – at home, and in schools – as well as after, in the world of work.

Second, we should ask questions about fairness in admissions and return to questions of different expectations for different groups and contextual admissions. We could – and should – seek to be fairer in the current system regardless of what happens to the overall size of the system.

Third, we should celebrate multiple models of excellence, of which Oxbridge is only one. There’s a narrowness to the educational and social experience of these two universities. Different places, curricula and pedagogies can and do offer equally (or more) stimulating experiences, which might be better suited to different students. A diversity of excellence is a necessary prerequisite to supporting a diverse student body. That’s not supposed to be an argument for leaving Oxford and Cambridge to the social elites, but there’s a case to be made for recognising and celebrating excellence where it’s found, and accepting that excellence is diverse.

Fourth, and this is an additional ‘problem of excellence’, we should see universities in the context of their regions. Where we judge universities on their outcomes, we neglect to seriously benchmark for the relative (dis)advantage of the localities into which their students are returned. Given that many students stay close to home for university, and remain in their regions, we should recognise that the benefits and consequences of widening participation will be uneven. And are we doing enough to celebrate the work of those institutions that have successfully widened participation, far away from the media’s Russell Group obsession?

Fifth, if there’s a finite number of standard-age university applicants in any given year, expanding the Russell Group (or any subset of that group) to absorb more simply draws away students from other institutions. This will yet further weaken those universities which are working hard on widening participation but also suffering from declining numbers of applicants.

Sixth, while the discussion here is focused – as higher education commentary (and policy) too often is – on the full-time, standard age, undergraduate mode, why aren’t we focusing attention on widening participation across the full breadth of forms of delivery? Perhaps a stronger argument for a new Oxford college could have been for that college to be virtual; specialising in degree apprenticeships, or online-only distance learning. Too little attention is paid to part-time learners, and mature students; let’s think about them too.

Seventh, either the government should go about picking winners or not. The current system, with an ever increasing focus on a regulated marketisation, is one which Hillman has championed; particularly the lifting of the student numbers cap. If the policy aim is widening participation and fair access, then there should be interventions which stimulate this. Why not give more serious incentives, or meaningful sanctions, for widening access?

Eighth, the numbers involved with a singular focus on Oxford and Cambridge are simply too small, and the inequities in entry rates simply too large. Both universities accept only 2,200 full-time young undergraduates, a tiny proportion of whom (barely 5%) are from the least advantaged areas, and over half are whom are from the most advantaged areas. The amount of expansion required to come even close to equalising these universities’ entrants profiles is beyond what is practicably possible. If Oxbridge were to focus only on (to use Hillman’s words) “making the hole as big as possible”, and the limit is Hillman’s suggestion of an extra 500 undergraduate places per year exclusively for POLAR Q1 and Q2 entrants, they’d still be miles off having an equitable entry rate with POLAR Q5.

In fact, you’d need more than 3,000 extra undergraduate places at Oxford and Cambridge every year to equalise all POLAR quintiles with the current entry rate for POLAR Q5: a 150% increase. Fairer and wider access at Oxbridge won’t happen and simply can’t be possible without eating into the most advantaged quintile’s hold on over half of the current places.

Ruffle Group

Cambridge and Oxford are excellent universities, topping national and international league tables. But they have a disproportionate weight on the higher education debate. This is perhaps inevitable, with such a long head start to help them, and with the weight of prestige markers on their side.

However, they are relatively small, and more set-in-their-ways than many other institutions. By constantly lavishing attention on Oxbridge or seeing their product as a silver bullet to cure all of society’s problems, we avoid identifying more important or creative solutions to inequality and injustice. We need to think much more broadly than this duopoly if we’re going to talk about really addressing fair access and widening participation in UK higher education.

3 thoughts on “If Oxbridge is the only solution, we’re asking the wrong questions”

  1. christine jackson says:

    completely agree with your points abut Oxbridge. There are other equally good alternatives for those not embedded in academia as a result at the end. All those students are ignored and minimised by the focus on Oxbridge and Russell group institutions.

  2. lizmorrish says:

    This hints at some good reasons for much more diversity in the sector – something VCs are reluctant to act on. One of the frustrations of working in HE is having to genuflect before the administration’s ambitions to be more like the Russell Group. The idea of doing something really distinctive, like being the university that equips all graduates with another world language, or with an overseas placement, seems too much like a risk. But listen to the students of Harper Adams who value their ‘niche’ experience. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/student/news/student-experience-survey-2017-down-on-the-farm-at-harper-adams Perhaps if ‘excellence’ was genuinely seen to materialize though diversity of provision, the more fortunate students might be willing to distribute themselves more widelyaround the sector.

  3. Nick Hillman says:

    Thanks for responding to my piece in such detail. But you exaggerate the differences between us.

    I have never suggested, in the words of your title, that “Oxbridge is the only solution”. Similarly, nor have I argued for “the endowment of more Oxbridge colleges to SOLVE UK HE’s access problems.” (My caps.)

    I have argued that more Oxbridge colleges would ease Oxbridge’s access issues. I stand by that for the reasons given in another article posted on Wonkhe today, which states “we might argue that Cambridge – with the current size and shape of its undergraduate population – is ‘missing’ roughly 333 eighteen-year-old students each entry cycle from POLAR Q1.” They could help fill a new college. But I do not believe such expansion at our two oldest universities would go very far at all in solving the challenges facing the whole UK higher education sector.

    In an article published by the Higher Education Review three years ago, I argued that “Widening opportunity across the board is more important for social mobility than constant tinkering with the zero-sum game of precisely which undergraduates should attend Oxbridge.” (Higher Education Review, Vol 46, No 2, 2014, p.16.)

    I stand by that too. So perhaps there is not much more than a cigarette paper between us.

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