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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Widening participation and the demise of the great British university*

Let’s think, for a minute, about why British universities might be slipping down the international league tables. The figures are fairly clear: 51 of the UK’s top 76 universities, including sixteen from the Russell Group, have dropped in the latest QS rankings.

The Telegraph had a go at this exercise this morning, and concluded that ‘experts [blame] the decline on pressure to admit more disadvantaged students’. In response, I’d start with the word ‘experts’. It seems to me they had just one, from the University of Buckingham (and I’m not even sure that he would be comfortable with the way his words have been used). Their other interviewees seemed to be pulling in different directions; but, hey, why miss an opportunity for a spot of reactionary elitism on the day of a general election?

What this extraordinary explanation for the fall of Britain is doing, after all, is blaming a programme of social mobility – the longstanding commitment to widening participation in higher education – for a decline in quality. Or, in a not wholly subliminal way, it’s suggesting that our top universities could be great again if only they didn’t have to admit so many of the wrong kind of persons. Those poor people from underfunded schools: they really pull us all down.

Another way of analysing these results might have been to start with the QS methodology. It encompasses six metrics:

  1. Academic Reputation
  2. Employer Reputation
  3. Faculty/Student Ratio
  4. Citations per faculty
  5. International Faculty Ratio
  6. International Student Ratio

As hard as I look, I don’t see anything here about the average net worth of the parents of a university’s students. Funny that; if we could only take ourselves back a few generations, it was all so much more straightforward.

So where else might we look for explanations? First of all, we might consider the level of international competition. There are countries around the world, not least in Asia, that have methodically and ruthlessly targeted success in the international league tables. They have increased investment across the board, and also concentrated resources on identified elite groups of universities. They’re not relying on reputations rooted in the past; they’re aggressively building those reputations right now.

Secondly, let’s pause on the final two measures, which are all about international outlook. For all our ‘we are international’ hash-tags, British universities are hamstrung by a government that is and insular in its outlook and hostile – at least in its rhetoric – towards international students. Other countries are increasing their numbers of international students while we are going backwards on this measure. Our participation in EU research funding schemes, which have been the single greatest engine of international collaboration, is in serious doubt.

Which leads us to Brexit. After an election campaign in which both major parties have made promises about this and that while determinedly ignoring the fact that Brexit will rip a bloody great hole in the nation, it seems appropriate that we should be looking every which way other than Brexit for an explanation for these league table trends. Because it couldn’t have anything to do with Brexit, could it? It surely couldn’t – or not, anyway, for The Telegraph – be influenced in any way by this historical act of insularity and xenophobia?

No: there must be someone else to blame. It must be caused by our dreadfully misguided efforts to drag forward all these frightfully uneducated oiks. Britain was an altogether greater nation when those folk knew their place, and when the higher education system was designed to damn well keep them there.

* Published under a different title by wonkhe.com

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.