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In a world that feels ever more polarised, politicised, and uncertain—but at the same time more diverse, more polyphonous, and more open—this year’s graduate student led conference asked: how can we make education truly inclusive?

Held on 12 – 13 March, the theme of the department’s Students’ Ongoing Research in Education Studies (STORIES) 2019 conference was ‘Inclusivity: Mental Health, Access and Accountability’. The conference was organised by nine doctoral students, with an aim to broaden the understanding of inclusivity in the field, and challenge what is believed to be possible in education.

Over 50 people attended from across 14 universities to hear the 40+ presentations which covered issues from inclusive education practices for refugee children to neurodiversity in school communities. In order to make the conference as inclusive as possible, a travel grant for students who would not otherwise have been able to attend was also set-up – a first for the STORIES conference.

Keynotes were delivered by Nidhi Singal (Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge) on ‘Access and Inequality in Education in the Global South’, and Alis Oancea (Professor of Philosophy of Education and Research Policy, Department of Education, University of Oxford) on ‘The Culture of Accountability in Research and Higher Education’. An inspiring mental health discussion was also held with Jason Arday (senior teaching fellow in the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick).

The conference ended on an inclusive note, with a comedy performance open to all members of the public free of charge with an optional donation to the local charity Oxfordshire MIND. The performance was given by teacher and comedian Alex Farrow, co-founder of Jericho Comedy.

Nuzha Nuseibeh (on behalf of her fellow doctoral student organisers Faidra Faitaki, Aneyn O’Grady, Jude Anuar, Anay Nangalia, Lucy Hunt, Caitlin S. Wild, Rong Qian and Pei-Hsin Li) commented: “We chose this theme because we felt it was an important time to be discussing these key issues and highlighting the work of early career researchers who are trying to tackle them.”

All participants have been invited to submit a paper for the STORIES Proceedings publication, which will be published in the autumn.

Judging by the size of the participant audience at the five sessions, the quality of the evidence-based papers and the stimulating conversation that ensued, the department’s Hilary Term public seminar series on ‘Student access to university’ were a great success.

Author: Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education

The seminars, held between January and March at four Oxford colleges and the Department of Education, packed out every venue and covered seminar topics spanning admissions testing, the fairness of access in English Higher Education, postgraduate access, fair access via contextualised admissions, and access at the University of Oxford. There were successive attendances of 97 (St Johns College), 90 (Department of Education), 78 (Linacre College), 113 (Lady Margaret Hall) and 120 (St Anne’s College).

Discussion at the final seminar on ‘Student Access to Colleges at the University of Oxford’ on 4 March, chaired by Sir Ivor Crewe from University College, led by a panel of college heads and senior tutors from five colleges, and with a response by Lucas Bertholdi-Saad from the Student Union, ran almost 20 minutes over time and could have continued well into the evening. Perhaps the seminars attracted those most reform-minded, not those sceptical of changes to orthodox academic entry, but it is clear that at Oxford there are strong desires for a broader social mix, and determination to make that a practical reality.

This discussion draws together three elements not always well aligned in research universities: a high academic mission with no limit to the level of intellectual excellence, systemically fair access, and positive discrimination in favour of disadvantaged students. The seminar series, convened by the department’s Jo-Anne Baird and Simon Marginson, formed part of the department’s flagship 100th anniversary events programme and started from the premise that lasting advances in social access can be secured only through defensible changes to policy, process and mechanisms that are grounded in research evidence.

The first seminar on 14 January on admissions testing, led by papers from  Samina Khan (Director of Oxford Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach) and Jo-Anne Baird and chaired by  Rebecca Surender as PVC for Equality and Diversity, set the tone. Test preparation effects had been found in previous research and those from schools with a track record of making applications to Oxford performed better on some of our admissions tests. One of the core questions discussed at this and succeeding seminars was how to consistently identify the potential for high university-level performance among students coming from home and school backgrounds rarely associated with outstanding school-level results. It was also apparent that a key issue is lack of adequate individual level data when making admissions decisions. Postcode identifiers simply do not suffice as indicators of disadvantage.

Three weeks later on 4 February, at the second seminar chaired by PVC (Academic) Martin Williams, an attentive room listened closely to Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students (OFS) as he delivered a reasoned paper that mapped inequalities at national level and set down the OFS reform agenda. The social and educational principles outlined in the Millward paper were endorsed by respondent Simon Marginson and generally agreed in the often lively discussion that followed.

The third seminar on 11 February, chaired by Nick Brown as Principal of Linacre College and led by Paul Wakeling from York, opened up the issue of social access at postgraduate level. In a university such as Oxford where graduate students are 41% of the total student body (the proportion in 2017-18), and where majority graduate study is a real possibility in the future, the question of access at postgraduate stage is crucial. This also suggests that the social mix at graduate student stage should become part of the policy discussion. At present OFS comparisons and targets focus on the undergraduate level.

During the seminar Chris Martin from Social Sciences Division also raised the issue of international students and access. We give little effective thought to the implications of either high fee international education or doctoral scholarship places for issues of social justice. The questions posed by Chris were not answered during the series but in a university as internationalised as Oxford they can scarcely be ignored.

The fourth seminar on 25 February, chaired by Andrew Bell from University College, heard Durham’s Vikki Boliver lucidly set down the case for a contextualised approach to admissions – the use of standardised metrics for adjusting students’ school-based performance based on indicators of disadvantage. Research shows that students with a bare pass from some schools can perform as well at university as students from three As whose schools and families provide a stronger starting point. This is transformative.

It was striking that the Boliver paper seemed to be agreed by those present. There was also much interest in Lady Margaret Hall (LMH)’s Foundation year initiative. Contextualised admissions, linked to a mix of preparatory/foundation programmes, plus continuing academic support, together have the potential to remake the access landscape.

Oxford is often painted in public as inaccessible, inhabited by the privileged and indifferent to educational opportunity, social mobility and democratic responsibility. But as the seminar series made clear, there is a strong access conscience in the University. From the University Offices to many of the colleges and departments there is a closely networked conversation about widening access and there is much discussion of systems, processes and metrics.

There is no doubt students from upper income quintile families dominate first degree entry at Oxford. Using orthodox selection methods, that outcome is inevitable. However, it seems very likely that in coming years the University will move forward on inclusion of severely disadvantaged students in the bottom quintile, the group targeted by LMH and others.

This is where the OFS policy also points. However, as as LMH head Alan Rusbridger remarked in seminar 5, a focus on the severely disadvantaged alone, the students for whom normal academic selection must be set aside if they are to have opportunities, may confine the scope for change in the student mix to small scale movement at the margin.

The more difficult issue is to tackle the mainstream mechanisms of existing merit-based selection – to transform the overall mix (especially the balance of quintile 2-4 students) to ensure it is more representative of the UK as a whole and brings in high potential students selected in a valid, credible and agreed manner. Neither the department’s access seminar series nor the OFS have yet answered that big ‘how’ question. However, there is no doubt the seminars have continued the momentum on access issues at Oxford. The next steps will be interesting.

Listen to the seminar series in full, here:

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

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

Access and Participation at Postgraduate Level: Research Findings and Their Implications for Policy and Practice, 11 February 2019
Paul Wakeling, Mike Bonsali, Nick Brown, Paul Martin

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

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


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.

If you have an interest in the future of education and would like to receive research updates from the Department of Education, join our mailing list.


Access to higher education is a major social issue in the UK as in most countries. Overall participation in the UK is moving towards 50 per cent of the school leaver age group but non-white students, state school students and students from disadvantaged regions of the UK are under-represented in academically elite universities. This pattern affects entry, completion and outcomes in graduate labour markets. Access to the University of Oxford is a persistent debate. Must universities choose between high standards and socially equitable admissions, or can we have both? What is the scope for change?

In Hilary Term 2019 the Oxford Department of Education will hold a five-part seminar series on ‘Student Access to University’ at venues across the University. We believe that the public discussion of access can move forward by bringing to it a research-based treatment. At the same time, reasoned and data-driven approaches to these vital issues will help us to reflect on the scope for development and reform at Oxford and in the country as a whole.

The scheduled dates for the seminars are Monday 14 January, 4 February, 11 February, 25 February and 4 March 2019, with the seminars running from 5 pm to 6.30 pm. Speakers will include experts from across the University and the Higher Education sector, including, Jo-Anne Baird (Director and Professor, Department of Education, University of Oxford), Samina Khan (Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach, University of Oxford), Chris Millward (Director of Widening Participation, Office for Students), Paul Wakeling (University of York), Simon Marginson (Professor of Higher Education, Department of Education, University of Oxford) and Vikki Boliver (Director of Research, Professor and Deputy Head of Department of Sociology, Durham University). There will be ample opportunity for full public participation in discussion.

The full programme details can be found here.

The Department of Education’s Public Seminar Series are held on a termly basis throughout the academic year and are designed to engage wider audiences in topical research areas across the department. Seminars are free to attend and open to all. Each series is convened by a member of the department and seminars are held on most Mondays during term from 5pm. Speakers include a wealth of academics from across the department and the wider University, as well as internationally recognised professionals from across the globe. All upcoming seminars are publicised, in advance, on the department’s event pages. Visit:

2019 will mark the department’s 100th anniversary since becoming a University department, in 1919. To celebrate this milestone, a year-long series of themed activities will be delivered, starting with the Public Seminar Series on ‘Student Access to University’. If you have an interest in the future of education and would like to be kept informed of our anniversary activities, join our mailing list to receive the top news, publications and event opportunities for the forthcoming year and beyond.

Departmental research teaching young women from non-traditional backgrounds how to code has led to more than newly developed programming skills for its participants, thanks to department academics Niall Winters (Associate Professor in Learning and New Technologies) and Anne Geniets (Research Fellow), with several young women from the most recent cohort who previously showed low participation in higher education going on to undertake further qualifications and training.

‘Go_Girl’ first began in 2015 and was initially run in partnership with Oxfordshire County Council’s Early Intervention Service to help widen and create a fairer access to the University in Oxford. Now in its third year, the programme has helped more than twenty young women in Oxford by training them in research, presentation, media production and IT skills, whilst also empowering the young women, broadening their aspirations and helping to determine their future career paths.

Pupils from the most recent cohort reported:

Participating in the programme, made me have a wider perspective of what I could do instead of working in retail for the rest of my life.  The programme gives you that hope that you actually don’t have to be what everybody always said you were going to be.  I didn’t want to be that person who wasn’t going to go anywhere … but this gave me more of a push.  It’s made me more independent to make my own decisions.  All the women that are here decided to come because they want a better life.  It’s like you’ve come from somewhere far away to somewhere you’ve never been before and taken that leap even though there is a possibility that it might not work out.  To put on your CV that you’ve attended something like this when you didn’t have to just proves that you’re willing to do something new and different.”  Rebecca, aged 18.

Before joining the programme, Rebecca was not in education or in employment. She has since enrolled in college to complete her GCSE in English, found employment in retail and most recently been accepted to join an NVQ3 in Business at a college in Oxford.

Participating in the Go_Girl programme made me more confident and I know that I’m not alone … I’ve got contacts [now].  The project shows that I can code.  I can design a game.  I can make a model.  I can design all the aspects of a game. The best thing was the guest speakers.  Everyone came from nothing but they didn’t give up.  They kept trying and look where they are now.  Coding has kind of changed my ways.  I changed my career path to designing games … because I enjoy making these fun adventures and I feel like the skills I have could match to it.”
Jay Jay, aged 24.

Since completing the Go_Girl project Jay Jay has been accepted onto a Masters course for Games Design and Development at the National Film & Television School, where she hopes to continue to further develop the demo that she created whilst on the Go_Girl programme into a full game.

It’s really helped me feel comfortable when talking because I never used to feel comfortable or confident doing anything like this.  You guys have been helping me with my future.  I learned coding.  That was really good because it’s something that I wouldn’t have seen myself doing.  Most of the people who came to talk – that was really useful because they obviously came from nothing and kind of worked their way up and that’s useful to hear.  When we had to present, I wasn’t going to do it but I did it anyway.  You guys kind of pushed us to do it and it went really well.”  Haylee, aged 18.

Haylee plans to become a nursing assistant and then a nurse in the NHS.  She is currently undertaking an apprenticeship at a local nursery and attending college 1-day a week.

The programme’s weekly Go_Girl sessions for the third cohort of young women started this month. The project continues to draw on the expertise of an interdisciplinary team who a re part of the department’s Learning and New Technologies Research Group and the Department of Computer Science, who have experience in new media engagement of young women from non-traditional backgrounds, collaborative design, participatory action research, and the training in and development of coding skills.

This research was initially supported by the University of Oxford IT Innovation Seed Fund and has received subsequent funding from Goldman Sachs Gives.

For more information visit:

Twitter: @gogirlteam

To discover more about the department’s Learning and New Technologies group see here.