"Oxbridge must shoulder their fair share of responsibility for admissions, but it is important to remember that they are not operating in a vacuum"LOUIS ASHWORTH

Another week, another Oxbridge access news story. This time, that Oxford has spent over £100,000 for every extra student admitted from a low income background since 2009. In a piece for Prospect magazine, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger highlighted the abysmal progress made by Oxford since 2009, when it pledged to increase its proportion of students from the 20 percent of most deprived postcodes from 6.5 to 9 percent of the overall cohort. Despite this representing only 23 extra students - less than one per college - Oxford has failed to meet this target in six out of eight years.

By now, that Oxbridge has an access problem is not news to anyone, with comprehensive reporting on the matter having become almost unavoidable - and rightly so. While I welcome the attention the issue receives, I can’t help but feel like nothing really has, or will, change as a result of it. A few days of headlines are generated, and then life continues as normal. In a few months’ time, the same stories will be run once more.

When Oxbridge receives its annual round of applications from over 30,000 candidates, it is dealing with 18 years of educational inequality

Part of the reason for this is a misguided tendency to view Oxbridge admissions in isolation. While the shock figures are what really shape the news agenda, perhaps the most revealing part of Rusbridger’s essay was a quote from Danny Dorling, an Oxford academic and inequality expert: “I think Oxford admissions reflect the times. When the country is very unequal in other ways, the admissions statistics around disadvantage tend to be very poor.”

In 1981, 52% of pupils entering Oxford were state educated, rising steadily from 43% a decade before. Today, more than 30 years later, this had only increased to 58%. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in 1981 Britain’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was just above 0.26, and had risen to 0.34 by the end of the 1980s. For the past 30 years, it has fluctuated around that mark.

Oxbridge must shoulder their fair share of responsibility for admissions, but it is important to remember that it is not operating in a vacuum. There is certainly a debate to be had over the merits and problems with the way admissions are conducted, but it is an undeniable fact that when Oxbridge receives its annual round of applications from over 30,000 candidates, it is dealing with 18 years of educational inequality.

Who gets into Oxbridge is of course an important story, but we should not only consider the immediate acceptances and rejections. We must remember that these are the product of a the state of education in a society where still only just over half of British pupils obtain a pass in 5 GCSEs including English and Maths, but some independent schools have over 90% of grades marked at an A* or A. A system where some pupils are going to school hungry, while top schools charge over £30,000 a year in fees.


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The best ways to combat this inequality is a conversation that must be had, but what is certain is that while 26.4% of all A levels awarded nationally are A* or A grades, while in some schools this rockets to 80% , Oxbridge will to continue to have to navigate the tricky waters of distinguishing polish from potential, and in all likelihood the same news stories will reoccur.

I often wonder why we as a nation seem so fixated by Oxbridge students despite there being only 24,000 undergraduates at a time. I’ve come to think that, among other reasons, it is because Oxbridge is believed to act as a proxy more widely for social mobility. Admissions statistics provide concrete evidence of racial, regional and educational disparities that apply more broadly to society as a whole. We should broaden our focus beyond an Oxbridge fixation which leaves us blind to the societal ills which colour the news stories which saturate the media. Until we think more broadly of the inequalities entrenched in the British education system, we will continue to see the same Oxbridge stories every year.

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