University life is becoming increasingly accessible for state-educated and underrepresented groups. Oxford recently broke records, with 69% of its offers for study in October 2020 being given to state school students. This shows how top universities are attempting to reinvent their reputation as elite after-school clubs for the affluent and privately educated. The question is, are these methods of increasing representation going against the grain of educational merit, or are they ensuring that true meritocracy is served?
From my understanding, it is largely the case that most state-educated students are not receiving contextual offers to go to Oxbridge. Oxford only recently announced that only 50 students this year have been given lower offers, including refugees and young carers. From this, if students are still achieving the required grades, this initiative is not unfair but simply ensuring that academically brilliant students from different backgrounds are not excluded from the top universities. What we are seeing here is no danger to the credibility of these institutions, but rather an example of how institutions should be working against social inequality.
So, without students coming from different backgrounds, how can we foster debate, conduct fruitful research, and create solutions and new directions for society at large?
Yet, Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities should not seek to tackle social inequality purely because it’s a moral imperative, but because it is in their self-interest. If universities prioritise knowledge, having students with knowledge beyond their schooling and extracurricular activities is necessary if they take their role as educators seriously. Our views of the world stem from how we grow up in it. So, without students coming from different backgrounds, how can we foster debate, conduct fruitful research, and create solutions and new directions for society at large?
The one-to-one interviews at Oxbridge also allow admission officers to see how students think through scenarios and answer questions, with students from diverse backgrounds having the originality that they are looking for. On paper, it can be misleading to view one student as being more impressive over another due a longer list of hobbies and extracurriculars. Not all families can afford for their child to learn to swim, dance, or play the piano. Parental privilege should not be the only way to gain a place in higher education.
Furthermore, when asking ourselves if these initiatives ensure or hinder true meritocracy, we must also ask ourselves what counts as being worthy of merit? Is merit limited to A-Level and GCSEs grades and extracurricular excellence? Or, does it extend to equally intelligent students that have not only achieved the grades but have overcame what their socio-economic situation had pre-mapped for them? I believe students who are statistically less likely to go to university should not be denied an offer but ensured one.
To argue against this initiative shows ignorance to the barriers other students have faced their whole lives and a failure to check one’s own privilege
Some of the most underrepresented groups at university are BME students, mature students, care leavers and students from Traveller communities. Surprisingly, another underrepresented group at Oxbridge are white working-class boys. A report by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) revealed that only 3% of all students at Oxford and 2% at Cambridge are white working class boys. In addition, between 2017-2018, only 26.3% of students on free school meals went to university, compared to 44.9% who did not receive school meals.
The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference executive director, Mike Buchannan stated how this initiative actively discriminates “against individual young people on the basis of the class they were born into.” Yet, this is not discrimination as private school students are still being given the lion’s share of Oxbridge places when taking into account that only 7% of the UK’s population attend fee-paying schools. Private schools must quickly learn to see the value of sharing places with their state school cousins.
In my eyes, it is backwards to view these initiatives as social engineering or discriminatory. This viewpoint ignores the fact that students from these underrepresented groups have faced actual disadvantage or discrimination based on their class, race, or socio-economic background. To argue against this initiative shows ignorance to the barriers other students have faced their whole lives and a failure to check one’s own privilege.
Yet, if having a state-education is seen as a blanket term for being disadvantaged, the most underrepresented and disadvantaged groups are not prioritised.
In fact, I would argue that these initiatives do not go far enough. An increase in the number of state school students studying at the top universities is, undeniably, a necessary and progressive step forward. Yet, if having a state-education is seen as a blanket term for being disadvantaged, the most underrepresented and disadvantaged groups are not prioritised.
Recent news from a report from the Office for Students (OfS) notes how institutions are taking action to narrow the ratio of advantaged to disadvantaged students at university to 4:1 by the year 2025- with this inequality being eliminated within 20 years. Goals like these are essential in tackling the mass disparities in young people being able to access higher education.
Thus, Oxbridge giving offers to a record number of state-educated students is commendable and progressive, but is only the first step. For a more holistic drive to end educational inequality, specific initiatives to increase representation for the most disadvantaged groups are vital. Beyond this, action must also be made to ensure that these students feel welcome and are supported for the duration of their time at university and beyond.