Oxford needs to look at its admissions process to move on access

Monday, March 4, 2019

Category: Blog

Lucas Bertholdi-Saad, Oxford Student Union Vice-President for Access & Academic Affairs at the University of Oxford responds to a public seminar on ‘Student Access to the Colleges at Oxford University’ held by the Department of Education on 4 March.

Author: Lucas Bertholdi-Saad, VP Access & Academic Affairs, Oxford SU
Monday 4 March 2019

We’ve heard tonight about all the exciting things colleges are doing to make Oxford a better, fairer, more representative place. And students are so happy to be involved with these things. I host meetings for Junior Common Room & Middle Common Room access representatives, and you can always bank on the rep from Lady Margaret Hall being proud of the foundation year, St John’s students discussing Inspire, and excited Pathways helpers talking about inter-college schemes.

At the same time, the SU can be thought of as your critical friend – which is a fitting role for a respondent. Students can be pretty vocal in their criticisms of the Collegiate University on access. But we are critical because we believe passionately our colleges and our university can be better. Thousands of students volunteer every year, proudly donning their college t-shirts because they love their college and their course. And they are critical because they want to be able to wear that college jumper at home too, with pride that their university and college is doing the right thing on access.

Perhaps with these new initiatives Maggie Snowling (President, St John’s College, University of Oxford) and Helen King (Principal, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford) discussed, we will be there soon, and I wouldn’t be making this speech in three years’ time. But I will contrast with the previous speakers here because I think the current college model around admissions to Oxford actually acts to prevent the sort of change on access that students are calling for, and that we are all here in support of. I think we should look again at what admissions is trying to do, and if it is fit for purpose. Helen is right that this is hard, but our access problem shouldn’t just be tackled with additional schemes such as the bridging scheme, no matter how much students support them. It seems our mainstream admissions may stop us meeting our access ambitions and regulatory obligations, and we might have to change anyway.

The University is the focus of society’s attention and regulatory scrutiny – it gets called out in the press and it signs the access and participation plan. But the University, as we have heard, is not the admitting body – these are the Colleges. Colleges have different incentives to the University – they aren’t subject to the same regulatory and national scrutiny, and are small academic communities where one student struggling on their course is keenly felt. There is a mismatch here. The central university might want to take more disadvantaged students who could need extra support to do well on course, but the Colleges have incentives to play things a bit safer. That is before even getting into departmental priorities, or the incentives for individual academics who in many cases make the final decisions and have to actually teach who they admit. As Alan Rusbridger (Principal, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford) pointed out, the numbers of additional disadvantaged students the University says it wants to recruit is not large – Joe Tutor might reasonably think he doesn’t need to give one of his three admissions slots to a flagged applicant. And if they are a bit more risky, surely someone else can pick up the slack in the 3,000 recruited every year?

Perhaps aligned incentives wouldn’t be important if everyone agreed about what we are looking for in admitted candidates. We wouldn’t need centralisation if the decentralised unit could act as one. That’s what we have the common framework for isn’t it?

Well let’s go back to the Common Framework. It isn’t a long document, and as Mark Wormald (Senior Tutor, Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford) mentioned it begins with the three objectives admissions procedures work towards: Attracting the most academically able, selecting those with the most potential to excel on course, and making sure admissions chances aren’t affected by college choice.

But the objective of selecting based on success on course can’t be the right one, even if it was easy to apply in practice. We have already agreed as a university that the criteria of success on course is biased because of attainment gaps.

Our strategic plan and our access and participation plan both include discussion on our race, gender, disability and class attainment gaps. These gaps exist when taking into account for prior attainment. If we just wanted those with the greatest potential to succeed, we’d bias admissions against women and minorities. That would be obviously illegal and I hope we’d agree unethical – so best and brightest is a poor description of what we are trying to do. And though it isn’t illegal to bias against working class or economically disadvantaged applicants because they do worse on course – going to a comprehensive is not a protected characteristic – surely it is unethical too, just as we have agreed around race and gender?

And this abstract view does not really explore actual practice at the level admissions decisions are made. It seems to me that admitting tutors to Oxford, even those in the same college interviewing for the same course, can disagree on what exactly they are interviewing for. We don’t always publish these criteria. Not all tutors interview scoring grid, and not all subjects to have clear specification criteria that admissions procedures test against. Many subjects rank all candidates to shortlist for interview against set criteria, and some like biochemistry produce a ranking after interview to determine who gets a place, but others leave final admitting decisions to be done by many different individuals on potentially different criteria.

So incentives are messy, and criteria aren’t always clear or consistently applied. If admissions produced outcomes we all agreed were perfect, perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue. But we aren’t where we want to be on ethnically diverse admissions, let alone access for disadvantaged students.

I have been working on access for ethnic minority students this year. As a university, there exists an offer rate gap between white and ethnic minority home applicants. If you take into account external factors – applicant course choice and prior attainment – and the gap will still exist, especially for Asian applicants. Asian applicants seem to perform worse on average in admissions tests and interviews, so taking those into account a lot of that offer rate gap might disappear. But it isn’t clear we should take the test and the interview for granted.  A 2017 Supreme Court case, Essop v Home Office, can give a steer. A civil service test that was being used to determine promotion, and ethnic minority applicants were more likely to fail. It was broadly determined that it was on the Home Office to objectively justify their test to avoid a finding of unlawful indirect discrimination. Those bringing the case did not need to give a reason why ethnic minorities doing worse on the test was discriminatory.

The relevant legislation, the Equality Act 2010, is also intended to apply to admissions procedures to universities, and there is clear guidance around the equality act and Higher Education. Mark Wormwald has mentioned our muddled accountability structures, and it doesn’t seem clear to me who would be called as the respondent if some disgruntled applicant decided to test the law, and ask if they missed out on a place at Oxford because of indirect discrimination at the interview – or even at admissions test stage, which is sometimes, but not always, marked name-blind.

The current institutional framework around student access to Colleges at Oxford does not just make it difficult to make progress on the access in general, then. And it may make it difficult for the Collegiate University to comply with its regulatory obligations. We have let a hundred flowers bloom with colleges leading the access agenda. Some are very interesting and impressive blooms indeed – Maggie Snowling and Alan Rusbridger spoke about the amazing things their colleges have done. But I do think we need to make some changes to get to a place where we can all be proud of this university on access, students and staff alike. Reflecting on our current gaps and our current successes, I would suggest we need a new and shared vision of fair admissions, measured on the extent to which it produces a diverse and representative student body. We need transparent admissions criteria, decided by academics, which are consistently applied to students. We need to be able to produce a final ranking of every applicant in every subject, so we can see the impact of every step of our process. And we need to have a clear chain of accountability, so we know who to praise when it all works out.

To listen to ‘Student Access to University’ in full, visit here.

About the series

‘Student Access to University’ was a five-part public seminar series, led by the Department of Education and convened by Jo-Anne Baird (Director, Department of Education) and Simon Marginson (Professor of Higher Education, Department of Education). The series, which was held from 14 January – 4 March 2019, formed part of the department’s 100th Anniversary celebrations and included a wealth of speakers from across the University and the Higher Education sector. It aimed to move access forward through public discussion and a research-based treatment, reflecting on the scope for development and reform at Oxford and in the country as a whole.

All seminars in the series have been made available as podcasts, which can be listened to here:

‘Student Access to College at the University of Oxford’, 4 March 2019
With Ivor Crewe, Helen King, Alan Rusbridger, Maggie Snowling, Simon Smith, Mark Wormald and Lucas Bertholdi-Saad

‘Promoting Fairer Access to Higher Education: The Necessity of Contextualised Admissions’, 25 February 2019
With Andrew Bell, Vikki Boliver, Peter Thonemann and Neil Harrison

‘Access and Participation at Postgraduate Level: Research Findings and their Implications for Policy and Practice’, 11 February 2019
With Nick Brow, Paul Wakeling, Paul Martin and Mike Bonsall

‘Access and Participation in English HE: A Fair and Equal Opportunity for All?’, 4 February 2019
With Martin Williams, Chris Millward and Simon Marginson

‘Admissions Testing Preparation Effects’, 14 January 2019
With Rebecca Surender, Jo-Anne Baird, Samina Khan, Alison Matthews and Karen O’Brien


In 2019, the University of Oxford’s Department of Education celebrates the 100th year since the passing of a statute creating what was known in 1919 as the University Department for the Training of Teachers. To celebrate our centenary a year-long series of activities will be delivered to address some of the department’s top initiatives for 2019, answer some of the big questions facing education today and to reveal the advancements the department has made to the study of and research in the field of education. Join us as we mark our 100th year and discover more about our anniversary here.

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