Feeling sorry for Oxford: another week in the widening participation debate

Just another week of fury in the coverage of higher education in the British media. On Wednesday The Telegraph was celebrating the fact that half of the students starting this year are the first in their family to go to university, and it seemed like all was well in the world. But in Britain, every patch of sunshine has a Storm Brian on the horizon. So along came The Guardian on Friday, barracked along by the BBC, to hammer Oxford on its record on social inclusion.

It’s not often I feel sorry for colleagues at Oxbridge, but this is one of them. The data are actually contestable (see an excellent twitter thread by @Dr_JSA yesterday), and say much about entrenched problems with social inclusion across the entire education system. It’s a bit tough to blame Oxford for inequality in the UK, but there we are. The Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach from Oxford was pulled onto the Today programme to be harangued by David Lammy, and social media was whipped into a frenzy. (That, by the way, is a definition of acting above one’s pay-grade. Oxford should have put forward a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for that spot.)

Give it a few days and Storm Lammy will blow over, the Daily Mail will publish a piece on the evils of contextual offers – as, let’s remember, they do – and we will stumble into another round of undergraduate admissions no wiser than we were at the outset. What an absurd – yet, in this country at this moment, absolutely typical – way of handling a hugely important social and educational issue.

So, yes, I feel a little bit sorry for Oxford. But I also think they – and other universities that could so easily be the focus of attention next week – could learn something from this.

 

Transparency and the contextual offer

Universities waffle when it comes to contextual offers (i.e. lower offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds). Maybe that’s for good reason, since we sail between Scylla and Charybdis, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. Maybe it’s because central governments have been too spineless to give us some cover from the latter by speaking out in support of such offers. But we waffle. I’ve waffled myself at open days.

Yet there is solid evidence that underpins contextual offers: have a look, in particular, at anything from the Bristol Widening Participation Research Cluster. There are limits, of course; a student entering Oxford with A-Levels at CCC is probably more likely to drop out than to succeed. But the research supports making offers roughly two grades lower than standard for a course to students from under-performing schools and colleges. They will catch up.

But I’m amazed how opaque we all tend to be about contextual offers and the basis upon which they are made. My sense is that quite a lot of universities make them, but I’m much less convinced that potential applicants know about them. Surely transparency matters.

Which brings me to the Oxbridge interview. In practice, in the hands of skilled and sympathetic interviewers, I’m sure these can be a mechanism for making very generous contextual offers. I’ve certainly heard stories along these lines, while I know A*A*A* applicants from private schools who have been rejected. But it seems to me that this happens at the expense of consistency and transparency, and as a result all the good work is scattered in the wind. I wonder whether someone at Oxford has studied what would happen if they scrapped their interviews.

 

Cultural diversity and the dreaming spires

The other big issue with interviews is: how many potential applicants do they deter? I’ve had proponents of the Oxbridge interview tell me over and over that they are socially progressive: a way of weeding out the well-coached but intellectually vacuous privately-educated applicant. But is the working-class Islamic girl in Newcastle hearing this message? Or is she listing other universities on her UCAS form?

I heard a black Cambridge student on ‘The World at One’ yesterday talking about her interview experience. It was fair, she said, but she was glad to have been through an access programme that included interview training sessions. Well, precisely. Access programmes are fantastic and we should do more to publicize them, but they’re also costly and by nature patchy in their coverage of the population. If students like that one need the benefit of an access programme to demystify the Oxbridge interview, I’d suggest they have a problem.

These problems are compounded by the existing lack of cultural diversity. If I was that Islamic girl in Newcastle, I could quite imagine thinking that Oxford isn’t for me. Let’s face it, the public face of Oxbridge is white and comfortable; and much of the rest of the Russell Group – step forward my own university – is pretty similar. Who really wants to be the first black student in six years to enter the gates of Merton College, Oxford? What do universities like mine have, that will attract socially disadvantaged and ethnic minority applicants to us?

This is a huge challenge, but not one that I’ve yet seen any place tackle in an exemplary manner. Who is the outstanding Russell Group PVC with responsibility for cultural diversity? Any answers? Which university has stood back and really asked itself what it needs to do to make itself more welcoming – more of a home – to its ‘non-standard’ applicants? We’ve all addressed this question in relation to international students, so surely it’s possible to change if we really want to do so.

Let’s face it, the presence of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford doesn’t help, especially when an MP is accusing the University of ‘social apartheid’. I appreciate I’m in the minority, but I’d be doing something about that, because symbolism matters. Other universities can start with more of a blank slate, though still facing some undeniable challenges in terms of location, reputation, and so forth. Cultural change is hard – indeed it makes fiddling around with contextual offers look easy – but crucial if we really want to shift patterns of application.

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Time for a student-support arms race: entering the era of the Teaching Excellence Framework

Here’s a coincidence. Over the past couple of weeks, senior academics and managers across the UK have been polishing their ‘provider submission’ documents for the first cycle of the Teaching Excellence Framework. If you haven’t felt the terror of thistelegraph-final process, you just haven’t been in the right meetings.

Meanwhile up north, the University of Manchester has become the latest to advertise new paid posts for ‘working-class officers’. This kind of appointment, through the students’ union, won’t cost the university very much money but is an important statement of a perceived need.

I think these two things are – indirectly, at least – related. Staring into the abyss of a possible ‘silver’ – or, God forbid, ‘bronze’ – rating rather concentrates the mind. It might quite logically lead to new initiatives and commitments. Indeed I’m prepared to ask here whether – contrary to the assertions of those inflation-deniers at the National Union of Students – the TEF might turn out to be rather a good thing for students after all.

 

Cultural diversity and all that

The Manchester initiative follows similar appointments at SOAS and St Hilda’s, Oxford. While some will doubtless mock the idea that universities need these posts, they seem to me realistic and responsible responses to emergent needs.

There is ample evidence that students are arriving at university with more complex and urgent requirements for support than ever before. Wellbeing and disability services are oversubscribed across the country, while freshers arriving with weak qualifications often need intensive study-skills support if they are to adjust successfully to university-level study.

Cultural diversity presents further challenges. As I’ve written before, it can be all too easy for universities to assume that they’ve done their bit for widening participation simply by getting applicants from marginal and disadvantaged groups through the doors. But at that moment the challenges for those students are only just beginning, especially if they’re arriving at a university where the vast majority of students are middle class and white.

The TEF, by the way, recongnizes this issue. The bundle of data handed to universities includes figures on retention, broken down by categories of students. If a university is failing to support its non-standard students, it will be exposed.

 

The TEF and the art of bullshit-detection

The institutional TEF submission this time around consists of that institutional data-set and a supporting document. The data will give each university a pretty good indication of how they will be graded, but it seems that the written submission may make a moderate-to-significant difference, especially in borderline cases.

Universities have not been given much guidance about how to approach the provider submission. But one of my conclusions, based on the experience of a long day editing a draft version (a bloody good one, mind), is that it’s a genre that soaks up a whole pile of evidence, while rather hanging rhetorical flourishes out to dry.

Or, to put it another way, this exercise will expose universities that try to hide behind rhetoric. We all say the same stuff anyway – student-first, research-led, challenge and stretch, etc. – so there’s no pretending that one place has uncovered the holy grail of excellence. And I have it on good authority that the TEF panel will be employing state-of-the-art bullshit-detection systems.

So, to take one example, a university might say ‘we’re committed to supporting widening-participation students’ in fifty-eight different ways, but without some evidence of actions, those claims are going to look worse than threadbare. What the university needs to be able to say is: ‘we’re so committed to supporting widening-participation students that we’ve employed people to support them’. That kind of evidence could, let’s say, be worth it’s weight in gold.

I expect, therefore, that the experience of filling those fifteen pages has demonstrated, to managers across the country, the importance of credible commitments and actions. Once the results are announced and all relevant documents are published, I also expect that this message will be reinforced by the experience of us all reading ‘gold’ statements. That will in turn foster a spirit of emulation and competition.

 

I don’t particularly like the TEF: it’s onerous, it’s not especially necessary, and it’s set to produce some perverse results. But I’m coming around to its mind-focusing powers. We’re all accustomed to the discourse of strategy-documents and marketing, but the provider submission will prompt senior managers, on a regular basis, to reflect upon what really has been done to improve the student experience. Maybe ‘working-class officers’ will remain a niche career-path, but I’d predict increased commitments across the country to resources, education enhancement and – maybe above all else – student-support. That can’t be a bad thing.

The Widening Participation debate: the sound, the fury, and the missing term

Having widening participation being debated on the Today programme can’t be a bad thing, can it? Well, maybe it depends a little on how it’s done. In fact, hearing John Humphries last Saturday harry Les Ebdon and an admissions officer from Bristol University did not, in my view, do an awful lot for the cause.

Beating up Bristol because their figures on social mix are so low is an easy game. Paradoxically, it’s equally easy for the defenders of social privilege to attack Bristol for its policy on contextual offers. (Bristol does make contextual offers, and does the research on attainment to support its policies.) My point is that this debate is more complex than attacks from one extreme or the other – proponents of social reform or social privilege – allow.

I suggest that we need to look not so much at patterns of offers and acceptances, but rather more at patterns of application. David Morris’s Wonkhe blog-post, ‘Transparency revolution: is there bias in university admissions?’, is good in this regard, demonstrating the tendency of students from certain socio-economic and ethnic groups to gravitate disproportionately to certain universities. I guess we all know this – it’s not hard to see the effects of these patterns in a walk around many campuses – but perhaps we don’t always reflect sufficiently on what it means.

One uncomfortable fact here is that the obsession with defining ‘top’ universities (John Humphries’ term on Saturday), with all its well-meaning yet clumsy snobbishness, helps to create by implication a ‘bottom’. In other words, it serves to run down the reputations of the many excellent universities that are producing high numbers of graduates from ethnic minorities and lower socio-economic groups. Might it not be helpful instead to think about the excellence of, say, Manchester Met, which takes very high numbers of such students? As long as society overlooks the achievements of such students – lazily assuming that graduates from ‘top’ univerisites belong at the top of the pile – this problem of entrenched inequality will survive.

But challenges remain nonetheless for ‘top’ (if we accept, for the sake of argument, the loose equation of ‘top’ with ‘high-tariff’) universities. And it seems to me that these challenges are not just a matter of statistics, to be solved through the calculations of contextual offer-making; they are, arguably above all else, cultural. What are the ‘top’ universities, in other words, doing to create environments in which non-standard (by their terms) students will feel sufficiently welcome to apply, and consequently fulfil their potential when they arrive? Maybe not as much as we could be doing.

I was struck, earlier this year, by three stories of bullying, at different ‘top’ universities: on grounds of racial difference, social difference, and (wait for it) a reputed association with feminist groups. That’s all anecdotal, of course, but a devastating reflection nonetheless on the state of cultural diversity on some campuses. It’s condemning non-standard students in many ‘top’ institutions to struggling daily against a feeling of difference and alienation, and stands as a key reason why many such applicants are just not bothering with the likes of us. Some students will relish the challenge of feeling like a pioneer; many won’t.

So I’d suggest that in order to change the statistics we need first to address campus cultures. There are academic aspects to that project: work at Kingston has done much to demonstrate the importance of sensitive student-support structures in addressing gaps in attainment. But there are also non-academic or semi-academic aspects: from the culture of student halls, through clubs and societies, to the look and feel of campuses. That’s a hugely complex and challenging task, but surely worth the effort.

There’s also the question, finally, of quite how much universities can be blamed for problems of inequality that can be traced back to the earliest stages of education. But I’m not going there; it’s worth raising the point simply to underline the complexity of inequality in Britain. Beating up admissions officers on national radio, on the premise that they have the power to fix things, doesn’t really do much to address these matters.