Barriers to access run too deep for new colleges to fix LOUIS ASHWORTH

Adding to the conversation about access at Oxbridge is an article written by Lord Andrew Adonis, a Labour peer and former transport secretary, which was published in The Guardian this week.

Adonis suggested a “revolutionary but achievable” solution in response to deeply unequal figures for Oxbridge admissions currently and historically: the creation of purpose-built colleges specifically for “disadvantaged” students, focusing on “access with excellence”. The targets of the “new colleges” would be students from the “missing 3,000” state schools and colleges which send the fewest students to Oxbridge each year - fewer combined than the eight schools who dominate admissions. Both universities have already responded to the suggestion, rejecting the proposal.

Adonis’ article is certainly provocative, suggesting a controversial and seemingly radical approach to the voices discussing access and widening participation, but his solution is ill-suited to the problem.

The idea is a very Oxbridge-centric solution to a problem which extends far beyond these two universities. Expanding the domain of the universities without challenging their role is not good enough. A top-down solution, focusing on the “missing 3,000” maintained schools and colleges which send the fewest students to Oxbridge, may be a quick fix, but it does little to change the existing inequalities from the bottom up.

It would be naïve to claim that serious structural reform to the entire educational system would be any quicker or easier, but Adonis’ Oxbridge-focused solution addresses only one relatively small problem. Access is not just about the proportions of a certain kind of student who actually attend Oxbridge, let alone the disparities evident at application. Widening participation includes the participation of students in non-Oxbridge universities. Adonis does not detail how the students who would fill the new colleges would be prepared to apply to Oxbridge and other universities, other than promising “the right encouragement and extra support”. Changing patterns created by layers of disadvantage would require cooperation at all levels of the education system. Suffice to say, this is not much of a plan.

“Adonis’ proposed ‘new colleges’ are castles in the air”

When these students accepted to Adonis’s new colleges became members of the University, he claims that they would only be regarded as second-class if “they aren’t as good as the others”. Such a view is extremely out of touch with today’s climate. Anecdotally, students who compare their academic strength to others are more attentive to their own inadequacies as a result of imposter syndrome, rather than those of their peers. And, in addition to academic comparison, recent events reveal that the University continues to be a place in which students are scrutinised on the basis of class; I need hardly mention the infamous video of the Trinity Hall Crescents as an example. Current and future students will only change their attitudes in increments, as changing the culture at Oxbridge would necessitate the restructuring of hundreds of years of entrenched classism. I may be a cynic, but I find it hard to believe that such a development would not be met with resistance from pockets of the student body – let alone the administration – and, were the colleges to be built and established, that they would not be met with derision and snobbishness from some students. Building new colleges would not make their walls impervious to the toxicity inherent in such a culture.

Creating “new” colleges may, as Adonis claims, be characteristic of Oxbridge, but that is not to say that acceptance of such changes is immediate. Using the establishment of women’s colleges as evidence is unconvincing, as well as inaccurate. Women’s colleges were created because contemporary women were not allowed to attend the existing colleges, while building new colleges for disadvantaged students neglects the experiences of disadvantaged students at current colleges. Adonis does not specify how the move would affect existing access efforts; implicitly, it seems as though they would continue. However, creating new colleges would distract from current work to widen participation, removing the scrutiny on existing colleges for their numbers of disadvantaged students, and placing it on the performance of the new colleges to see if the Adonian experiment works. It’s possible that admissions of students from the maintained sector would backslide in existing colleges.

“The University continues to be a place in which students are scrutinised on the basis of class”

Post-admissions, Adonis neglects to consider what the experience of attending such a new college might be. The view of access and widening participation at Oxbridge in his article stops short of considering the personal impact of entering a space which, while ostensibly custom-made for you, is only a subsection of the whole machinery of the University. While the University and colleges are ostensibly making progress in terms of supporting students post-admissions – King’s has recently launched a £50m access campaign to provide bursaries to disadvantaged students, as well as creating ten places specifically for such students – disadvantage does not vanish once you reach Cambridge. Creating new colleges, it is implied, would be supplementary to the University’s existing access efforts, and may get more disadvantaged students into Cambridge. This would do little to prevent the alienation and financial strain which is already felt by many students, which could only be heightened by such segregation.

There are also the practical issues which accompany the creation of new colleges, though Adonis’ article does not consider these. Where would they be built? For Cambridge in particular, with its crammed city centre and extremely dense housing, it is inevitable that any new developments would be far from the centre of town. Given the insular nature of the collegiate system, any exclusion arising from reactions against the proposed new colleges would be heightened by geographical isolation. Moreover, given Cambridge’s housing crisis, which the mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough described in September as “immoral”, building more accommodation specifically for students would exacerbate existing problems for other Cambridge residents, including a severe housing shortage and rising rent across the city. It would be irresponsible of the University to put more pressure on the situation.


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The creation of “new” colleges would be like putting a plaster on healthy skin while ignoring gaping wounds elsewhere. A more radical approach to Oxbridge’s access problem would be to bring the proportions of state and private school students in line with the national average. In the 2017 admissions cycle, 36% of Cambridge’s home student intake came from the independent sector; such students make up only 16% of sixth form pupils and are therefore massively over-represented. However, introducing a more stringent and representative quota is not enough. An immediate change that needs to be made is addressing the coagulation of state comprehensives and grammar schools into one body. They are not the same, and ought not to be treated as such. In addition, other factors which might influence the likelihood of admission need to be considered. A more nuanced view needs to be taken, looking at factors like disparities between subjects, disparities between ethnic groups, disability, household income, POLAR quintiles which indicate a region’s participation in higher education, and the performance of individual schools.

Introducing new colleges while maintaining current efforts for state admissions would, indeed, be one movement towards redressing the balance, but it would introduce a whole host of other problems. Radical change to the existing measures for widening participation to all universities is needed, and it can start with reimagining and intensifying existing efforts. In the meantime, Adonis’ proposed “new colleges” are castles in the air.

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