Thursday, 9 December 2010

Oxford wants more posh pupils?

Oxford University has acquired an unenviable reputation for being horrendously white and upper-class. There's the impression that if you don't have a double-barrelled name, can prove lineage going back several generations to aristocratic land-owning families and have your own personal stable of polo ponies, well, don't bother to apply and in any case it needs to be written on calf vellum and personally delivered by a faithful retainer.

In a bid to counter this image they have organised 'outreach' events to encourage applicants from 'non-traditional backgrounds'. On the Oxford web site on the 'widening access' page they proudly state, 'New data is enabling us to refocus our widening access programmes for students from state schools and colleges with low rates of applications to the university'.

I've got this picture of crusty old dons forsaking the pleasures of sipping sherry in the Senior Common Room and instead supping instant coffee from chipped cups in draughty comprehensive staff rooms.

Somehow it didn't quite work out like that... 'The Independent' managed to chisel out the facts using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). More than a fifth of the 'outreach' events were at public schools, this might be stating the bleeding obvious, but somehow the university was oblivious to the fact that this sector, that educates 7% of pupils, scooped up 46% of places at Oxford. Westminster (Clegg's alma mater) alone managed to acquire 2% of undergraduate admissions.

Among the schools that benefited were (fees in brackets) -

  • Marlborough College (£29,310) 12 events

  • St Paul's (£25,773) 11 events

  • Rugby (£28,000) 10 events

  • Eton (£29,862) 9 events

  • Cheltenham Ladies' College (£27,735) 8 events

  • Gasworks Comprehensive (£0) 0 events

If that wasn't damning enough, this week, Labour MP David Lammy extracted more statistics, once again using the Freedom of Information Act. He noted that, 'They provided patchy data [and] challenged valid requests'. Given that the state invests £440 million a year what did they have to hide?

Twenty one Oxford and Cambridge colleges made no offers to black candidates for courses, one Oxford college (Merton) hadn't admitted a single black student in five years. Only one black Britain of Caribbean descent was accepted for undergraduate study at Oxford last year. Of the 1,500 academic and lab staff at Cambridge none are black.

In 1895 Thomas Hardy wrote 'Jude the Obscure' about a humble stonemason who dreams of studying at Oxford. Last year Oxford's social profile was 89% upper and middle class and Cambridge slumming it at 87.6% (the national average for UK universities is 64.5%). In the last seven years no one from Knowsley, Sandwell or Merthyr Tydfil has made it to Cambridge. Dream on.

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