Richard Adams and Caelainn Barr, The Guardian, May 22, 2018
Oxford’s glacial progress in attracting students from diverse backgrounds has been revealed in figures showing that more than one in four of its colleges failed to admit a single black British student each year between 2015 and 2017.
Several of the most prestigious colleges, including Balliol, University and Magdalen, each admitted two black British students as undergraduates during the three-year period.
The worst figures belonged to Corpus Christi College, which admitted a single black British student in those three years and attracted a dozen such applications.
Overall, white British applicants were twice as likely to be admitted to undergraduate courses as their black British peers – 24% of the former gained entry and 12% of the latter.
David Lammy, the Labour MP who has repeatedly criticised Oxford and Cambridge universities for failing to improve their track record on admissions, said the latest data released by Oxford showed little had changed.
“The university is clearly happy to see Oxford remain an institution defined by entrenched privilege that is the preserve of wealthy white students from London and the south-east,” he said.
“If Oxford is serious about access, the university needs to put its money where its mouth is and introduce a university-wide foundation year, get a lot better at encouraging talented students from under-represented backgrounds to apply and use contextual data when making offers, not just when granting interviews.
“The underprivileged kid from a state school in Sunderland or Rochdale who gets straight As is more talented [than] their contemporary with the same grades at Eton or Harrow, and all the academic evidences shows that they far outshine their peers at university too.”
The figures show marked variations between colleges, including wide gaps in the proportion of state-school and female students admitted.
Across the three years, less than 40% of Balliol’s British undergraduate intake were women, while Trinity College admitted three students from independent schools for every two they admitted from state schools.
Samina Khan, the university’s head of admissions and outreach, denied that the variation in admissions by colleges was hampering Oxford’s efforts to widen access. “I think the admissions process here does work, it’s fair and it’s transparent. It’s a strength of our undergraduate admissions,” she said.
In a press release accompanying the figures, the university said it “recognised the report shows it needs to make more progress”. It said it was adding 500 more places to its spring and summer school programme for students from under-represented backgrounds.
The expansion is to be part-financed by a £75m donation from the philanthropists Sir Michael Moritz and Harriet Heyman, which will also be used for Moritz-Heyman scholarships for British students eligible for free school meals or from households earning £16,000 or less each year.
The summer schools allow prospective A-level students from disadvantaged backgrounds to spend a week at the university and receive advice in making their applications. Students who attended the programme, known as Uniq, have a 34% chance of a successful application, compared to 20% for UK-wide applicants.
The data shows Oxford has struggled to recruit black and minority ethnic students to some of its most famous degree courses. PPE, the influential course in politics, philosophy and economics that has trained generations of politicians and policymakers, had 10 black British students enrolled between 2015 and 2017.
Oxford’s highly regarded course in English literature and language, taken by literary figures such as JRR Tolkien and Jeanette Winterson, admitted six black British students in the space of the three years.
Seven of Oxford’s 25 largest courses received fewer than 10 applications each from black students in 2015-17 and admitted only very small numbers.
In the three years to 2017, not a single black British student was admitted to theology, biomedical sciences or earth sciences courses. None of the 30 black British students who applied to study computer science or psychology gained entry.
Khan said Oxford faced particular challenges in convincing students from minority backgrounds to widen their aim away from law and medicine, where the majority of black British applicants applied, to pursue less competitive subjects.
“It’s less of a challenge in terms of the students, because the students want to do English literature or want to do theology and religion. It’s usually the parents or the community that say: ‘what job are you going to get after that?’” Khan said.
“So it’s the parents we really have to convince and turn around. But what we are working on is to show them that a degree from Oxford opens doors to so many careers, and that we have an excellent progression route from our degrees on to graduate employment.”
The figures are the first tranche of detailed data on admissions to be voluntarily released by Oxford. The university said it planned to release further spreadsheets offering more detail on Wednesday, and to make the release an annual event.