Society or selection – what really makes up the Oxford collage?

No matter how many new institutions come up with innovative new models to meet the needs of graduate employers or the aspirations of non-traditional HE entrants, there is always a part of The Establishment mindset that feels any university experience that doesn’t reflect their own halcyon days on the banks of the Isis is just … “not proper”.

But the University of Oxford – all thirty-nine colleges and 900 years of it – has worked hard in recent years to dispel an elitist image that immediately evokes a thousand stereotypes. Offering a high-quality education to the most able students from any and all backgrounds, the institution feels confident enough to proclaim that it “reflects the inequalities – socio-economic, ethnic and regional – that exist in British society”.

A report, new out today, presents data that claims to make this case. It’s not presented in a form that makes it easy to compare with national markers – for instance, it features three-year samples including the current year for college-level data – but we managed to bend UCAS data into an appropriate shape to compare proportions, at least.

We’ve looked at colleges in particular as this represents a chance to examine performance in ways unconnected to the much-criticised Norrington score for academic attainment. Could it be, that as some institutions take pride in serving previously unserved communities, some Oxford colleges follow on from Brasenose’s historic association with North West England, and Jesus’s with Wales?

Compare and contrast

The headline has to be, despite the great strides that the institution has clearly made, that Oxford sits some way off the pace regarding attracting students from under-represented groups. Compared to the sector overall (23%), Oxford as a university attracts only 11.7% of its students from POLAR3 quintiles 1 and 2. St Hugh’s and Mansfield colleges are the only two to break the 15% barrier here.

Mansfield is also the only college to be above the sector average in recruiting pupils from state schools. The university as a whole takes 57% of its intake from the state sector, in comparison with a sector average of 81%. Mansfield (88%), of course, was founded to provide education to those previously denied access to university – but the 93% of pupils educated in state schools are hardly denied access to today’s diverse university sector.

Both Oxford as a whole and a small majority of colleges (including the until-recently all-female St Hugh’s) attract more men than women – though the sector as a whole is 57% women.

Oxford has attracted significant press attention for its accessibility to black and minority ethnic (BAME) students – and again it remains a little off the national pace here, with a 16% BAME intake not comparing well with 23% across the whole sector.


We don’t often get much data about Oxford colleges, so you will indulge us another ranking here. This shows the ease of entry for each college – defined as the percentage of applications made to each college, against the offers each made.

When applying to Oxford, applicants can state a preference for up to three colleges, based both on the subjects offered (not all colleges offer all subjects) and personal preference. As in the wider HE sector market, history and prestige may attract some, an attractive campus others, others still an academic (or less academic) reputation, and yet others may make a selection for more personal reasons. None of them look at LEO scores, and there is no Norrington TEF to confuse matters.

On our admittedly limited level of insight, it appears that St Hilda’s, St Anne’s, and St Hugh’s are most likely to make you an offer – with Brasenose, St John’s, and Keble least likely to do so. There’s no correlation with likelihood of acceptance, and no real link to any of the protected characteristics dealt with above. This is probably good news as the numbers involved are so small (even within a three-year aggregation) as to present statistical difficulties. The relative attractiveness of Oxford colleges must remain a mystery to us, for now at least.

Good progress, but could do better

The report notes that progress is being made, citing increases over the last five years for all groups. The overall proportion of UK undergraduates (important for POLAR comparisons) is lower than both Russell Group and sector-wide comparisons.

Notably missing is recruitment data for each college by region. Oxford colleges each have a “regionalisation”, granting them responsibility for a subset of areas across the country. Many colleges have been active in working with schools and communities in these areas, with the intention of driving both aspiration and recruitment.

This initiative underlines, for me at least, just how seriously Oxford takes these issues – but it would be great to see transparent data on how well it is working.

The Oxford conundrum

But what is Oxford for? Throughout a fascinating history, Oxford has always battled ferociously to limit competition – grudgingly accepting the upstarts at Cambridge, stamping down hard on challenger institutions at Northampton and Stamford, and even arguing against the establishment of the federal and civic universities at the tail end of the 19th Century. After this, it seemed insulated from most competition, with an offer that drifted between academic excellence and (during several Royal Commissions into low teaching standards) a kind of medieval mystique that still hangs around cloisters, quads, sub fusc, scouts, battles, chapel, and formal hall.

At once a kind of quasi-Platonic ideal and a warning against the corrupting influence of elitism, it has trained far more than a fair share of world leaders and talented researchers. It owns land across the nation and beyond, and holds a disproportionate sway over public policy. But it offers an educational experience that is nearly unique globally, and holds an iconic image of UK higher education that has done more to influence global reputation than any number of ministerial initiatives or diplomatic visits.

We need an Oxford (and a Cambridge). But the new models of education that serve the needs of society will not be found there. Significant expansion would lose what is special about the place, and add nothing to what can be better done elsewhere. Oxford needs to get better at reflecting the full range of British society and it is taking strides to do so. But the wider problems that cling to the ancient hierarchies of which Oxford and Cambridge play a part cannot be solved simply by adding a few new colleges, more fundamental reform is required.

8 responses to “Society or selection – what really makes up the Oxford collage?

  1. Thanks Dorothy, you are of course correct. St Hugh’s has been co-educating since 1986 – but I think in Oxford terms 1986 was “recent”!

  2. Does BME include Jewish students? Jews are legally an ethnic minority. I have a suspicion that Oxford (and Cambridge) admit Jewish students in a far greater proportion than Jews form of the general UK population (less than half of one per cent).

  3. Your graphic indicates that Oxford is in fact recruiting nationally but from a predominantly youthful demographic since its % of ethnic minority students is practically the same as the share of 18-19 year-olds who are ethnic minorities in the 2011 census. The graphic is also consistent with fair admissions in that X (the number of BAME students) can be expected to have a distribution across the colleges, some having more than average (the expected value of X) and some with fewer.

    In contrast, Higher Education Institutes are not uniformly distributed across the UK and the sector as a whole appears to have an intake reflecting the fact that London is over-served by HEIs (London also has a much higher than average ethnic minority population).

    Your final paragraph dismisses the creation of new colleges. Why do you reject this idea? The report shows that the number of places (approximately 3,200) has been fixed for many years despite Oxford’s success in attracting more applicants. The size of the demographic going to university is also expected to rise between now and 2020. Isn’t this a rationale for increasing capacity?

  4. Hear hear on your final point! Whenever I suggest new Oxbridge colleges, I am always struck by how much of the opposition is a) kneejerk, b) ignores these institutions’ own histories and c) assumes making access fair without extra capacity is easier than it is. This is not a dig at David K, who does of course think about such things in detail, but at much of the other opposition to the idea.

  5. Ethnicity is as defined in the census, so there isn’t an explicit category for Jews. Jews who don’t identify as black, white or Asian would have to use the ‘Other ethnic background’ option, which would not put them in the BME group.

  6. I missed this article, really interesting stuff and great replies. I too was stuck by the fact that HE participation by ethnic minority students shows they are not under-represented across the sector, or indeed at Oxford, but may be limiting themselves to poor quality local provision in some of our towns and cities, when they could aim higher. I believe there is evidence of this. The issue with Oxford colleges, as I understand it, is that they select purely on attainment, not for example based on personal statements, and surely that’s why a degree from Oxford is worth much more than one from most other institutions. I would also suggest, rather than just accepting the increasing demographic going to University, we should consider reducing the numbers by making other options more attractive to young people. This might increase competition in HE, reduce overcrowding, maybe remove some of the poor quality provision and courses, and perhaps get us back to where a degree was a meaningful qualification.

  7. One of the unmentioned attractions of the Oxford college system, and perhaps not realized until after you have been there and left, is that the colleges are relatively small in student number so that you get the comfortable feeling of a community in which you can easily get to know a lot of people. If Oxford were to expand massively it would be far better to do so by the establishment of more colleges, in spite of this being an expensive option.

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