Let’s look beyond Oxbridge: achieving social justice in higher education

The latest release of admissions statistics by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have drawn a fresh barrage of criticism.

David Lammy complained of Oxbridge’s slow progress in recruiting a more diverse student body, while Sam Gyimah threatened to impose fines.

Although it’s vital that these two elite institutions are subject to scrutiny around their progress on fair access – and are held accountable in achieving improvement – there is a real danger that the excessive focus on Oxbridge reinforces institutional elitism, instead of driving sector-wide reforms to diminish it.

Increasing socio-economic diversity at elite universities

Many students from non-traditional backgrounds across the UK self-select out of applying to Oxbridge, regardless of their level of attainment, because of a sense that it’s “not for them”. And indeed, the two institutions have a centuries-old cultural association with social privilege. But reading Lammy’s and Gyimah’s criticisms of these universities’ approach to diversity isn’t going to help students, their families, or teachers think otherwise. While the proportions of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are still small at both Oxford and Cambridge, they are rising year-on-year. This needs to be more widely acknowledged and voiced to encourage more to follow.

It is clear that admissions requirements and the misconceptions of potential applicants are practical issues and need to be addressed by practical measures to increase access, such as:

  1. Increasing the use of contextualised admissions and ensuring a transparent approach – across all colleges and courses – to significantly increase the number of low-income students. We recommend lowering offers by two grades to increase socio-economic diversity.
  2. Improving information, advice, and guidance around the application and interview process (for all non-selective state schools) will redress the imbalance with independent and selective schools, which typically hold more expertise in this area and devote more resource to it.
  3. Considering geographical diversity in addition to other diversity characteristics to meaningfully widen the pool of applicants; in particular, to engage students from the North of England who are significantly underrepresented at present.
  4. Increasing the provision of foundation years to students from underrepresented backgrounds, to widen participation and provide transition support to students who are admitted contextually.

These practical solutions should be implemented alongside wider reforms to league tables, which continue to result in inflated entry requirements. At present, they discourage universities from reducing the offer for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. For social justice, it’s vital that entry tariff is removed from league tables or, at the very least, given a reduced weighting.

Tackling inequality across the higher education sector

The debate around the lack of diversity at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge also overlooks the slow progress of many other institutions in diversifying their student communities. The two are not alone in their social exclusivity and they should not divert attention away from the far more widespread and pervasive problem of our segregated and stratified higher education system. Oxford and Cambridge sit within the same diversity ballpark as a number of other highly selective institutions, such as: Bristol, University College London, and Imperial College London. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are significantly underrepresented in the top third of higher education institutions (as classed by entry tariff).

Focusing on the intakes of two hyper-selective universities eclipses the inequalities across the higher education system (that are geographically, racially, and socially defined) which urgently need addressing through public debate and structural reforms. It also ignores the positive and progressive activity underway at higher education institutions across the country to ensure access to education and training.

We would urge ministers, MPs, and other commentators and campaigners across the political spectrum – not just Lammy and Gyimah – to expand their outlook and give voice to the full scale of the challenge to social justice in higher education. Weakening institutional hierarchy must begin by moving the conversation away from “elites” and recognising that quality provision resides across the UK.

2 responses to “Let’s look beyond Oxbridge: achieving social justice in higher education

  1. Sarah/Penelope, agree looking down the other end of the telescope is a good idea. Compare, for example,the amount of coverage devoted to Oxbridge with the publicity given to these stats:

    48% of black British students students apply to university with BTECs and 37% with only BTECs (similar to the most deprived white British students)
    http://www.smf.co.uk/half-white-working-class-black-british-students-england-get-university-vocational-qualifications-btecs/

    About 30% of black British students attend one of 10 UK universities, none of them high tariff entry:
    https://wonkhe.com/blogs/analysing-seven-years-of-data-on-black-placed-applicants-to-he/

    Black Caribbean students are permanently excluded from schools at three times the rate of white students:
    https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/education-skills-and-training/absence-and-exclusions/pupil-exclusions/latest

    There are legitimate questions UK HEI should answer about the black attainment gap and how students are selected. The truly shocking data, however, lies at school level where the battle for social justice is currently being lost.

  2. Turning the telescope the right way round is good advice.

    48% of black British students apply to university with BTECs and 37% with only BTECs. The school exclusion rate for these students is about 3 times the rate for white students. 10 low tariff universities currently have about 30% of all black British student enrollments.

    The battle for social justice is taking place in schools and it is currently being lost. Achieving diversity for these students (representation at higher tariff universities in proportion to attainment, with reasonable adjustments for context) is
    important. But achieving equality for these students (educational outcomes comparable to other groups) matters more.

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