Behind the Headlines

Facts, context and comment about issues raised in the media | 07 Dec 10

These issues are not just black and white

Oxford University was all over the media today - for making a major contribution to the understanding of the benefits of aspirin.

This kind of research excellence, and the contribution it can make to human wellbeing, defines what Oxford is about. Yet elsewhere, in the fees debate, the Guardian’s headlines imply that when it comes to undergraduate admissions, Oxford and Cambridge aren’t about excellence but about exclusion.

Exclusion isn’t in the interests of world-class universities. If you want the best people, then by definition you want them whatever their background.

Yet under the banner ‘the Oxbridge whitewash’, the Labour politician David Lammy makes a series of allegations about admissions policies at the two universities, all set against the background of the political battle between his party and the coalition government over tuition fees.

He deploys information culled from an FOI request to Oxford and Cambridge. It so happens that Oxford has been doing research of its own in this field, which it is making widely available. It has done this because the University is concerned to ensure it attracts and recruits the very best students, whatever their background. How else can a university remain world-class but to apply the same excellence criteria to admissions that it applies to research?

This analysis was given to the Guardian over a week ago. 

Why aren’t more black students getting into Oxford?

Oxford’s research shows that school attainment is the single biggest barrier to getting more black students to Oxford. In 2007, for example, around 23% of all white students nationally gained three As at A level (excluding General Studies), but just 9.6% of black students. Or look at it in numbers, in 2009: 29,000 white students got the requisite grades for Oxford (AAA excluding General Studies) compared to just 452 black students.

Once black students do apply, Oxford's own recent analysis shows that subject choice is a major reason for their lower success rate. Black students apply disproportionately for the most oversubscribed subjects. 44% of all black applicants apply for Oxford’s three most oversubscribed subjects (compared to just 17% of all white applicants). That means that nearly half of black applicants are applying for the same three subjects, and these are the three toughest subjects for admission.

Take Medicine. After Economics & Management, it is the most oversubscribed subject at Oxford. There are about eight applicants for every place available, all predicted top grades. A massive 29% of all black applicants to Oxford apply for Medicine – compared to just 7% of all white applicants. No wonder the success rate is low.

Obviously this raises crucial questions for Oxford about what more it can do in its work with schools, teachers, and prospective candidates about subject choice. But what the statistics emphatically do not show is anything to substantiate accusations of discrimination or exclusion by the University.

On a related point, much has been made of the ‘one black Caribbean student’ admitted to Oxford in 2009. Not one black student, but one black Caribbean student - in one year, looking at only UK candidates, and only undergraduates. As Oxford has pointed out before, this is very selective use of data. In that year, there were actually 27 black UK students admitted to Oxford. Beyond black students alone, 22% of Oxford’s overall student body is non-white (BME).

Reaching out

“Where are the Oxbridge schemes?” Mr Lammy asks, citing Harvard’s outreach work. Answer: last year Oxford conducted 1500 separate outreach events. The University spends over £4m on this annually, on top of the £6.6m spent on bursaries. Mr Lammy says that “Oxford targets 21% of its outreach events at independent schools” – a claim made in an Independent article earlier in the year and that was replied to in a letter for publication the following day.

State school applications have risen by about 80% over the last ten years. And when black students get the grades, they apply. In fact, black students gaining top grades are actually more likely to apply to Oxford than their white peers, which suggests outreach work is paying off: In 2009, nearly half of all black students nationally who got the requisite grades applied to Oxford – compared to around 28% of the white students with the grades.

Dealing in data

What about all those individual colleges not admitting black students, according to the Guardian’s coverage?

There comes a point when breaking down data across the 38 Oxford colleges begins to give numbers that are too small to be able to draw any reliable conclusions.

Dr John Bithell, Emeritus Fellow in Statistics at St Peter's College, Oxford, explains it like this:

‘At the level of individual Oxford colleges, numbers of black students getting a place are going to be very much subject to the vagaries of chance.

‘If there were 50 or 60 students of black origin at Oxford, they would not be distributed with one or two at every college. Just by chance, some colleges could have 4 or 5 black students, while others may have no acceptances in a particular year. 

‘For the numbers to be big enough to be "statistically significant" - meaning that the data would seem reasonably unlikely to have occurred purely by chance in that way – we need to look at acceptance rates at the University level across all colleges.’

That University-wide data by ethnicity, school type, geographic region and other factors is published openly each year.

Classy Oxford?

Differences in school attainment are important not just in getting more black students to Oxford, but also in other areas: socioeconomic groups and regional spread.

Knowsley in Merseyside, for instance, which Mr Lammy cites as failing to get students into Oxford and Cambridge, is the worst area in England for school achievement. In 2009 only 212 students in all of Knowlsey took three A levels – of these, only three (1.4%) achieved AAA or better. Of those three, two got offers from Oxford. That's a pretty outstanding success rate. And the area of the country with the highest Oxford success rate is Darlington in the north-east.

“If Britain has become a ‘classless society’ then Oxford hasn't got the message”, says Mr Lammy. But three recent reports indicate just how far Britain remains from that vision and how, in terms of the university access debate, the key decisions are made long, long before universities get the chance to consider candidates at age 17 or 18.

What Frank Field called ‘overwhelming evidence’ that children’s life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in their early years was confirmed again yesterday by the Institute of Education. Mr Field concluded the die was cast by the age of five. The Institute noted the “strikingly large” performance gap between middle-class children and their less advantaged peers by the age of seven. A third report by the IFS earlier this year says “socio-economic disadvantage has already had an impact on academic outcomes at the age of 11 and this disadvantage explains a significant proportion of the gap in HE participation at age 19 or 20”.