Varaidzo Kativhu is a second-year Oxford University undergraduate with a personal YouTube following of about 26,000 subscribers. An early episode of her weekly bulletins describing her time at university dealt with the issue of whether Oxford is diverse.
“No, no, flat out no,” she said as emphatically as she could. But she also told her viewers: “It is your job to make Oxford diverse.” In other words, “Do what I did: apply to study here and be part of the change.”
Vee, as she prefers to be known, has certainly done that. She’s an excellent student in classical archaeology and ancient history, and has done a stellar job of persuading others from non-traditional backgrounds to have a go at Oxford. In addition to her videos, she has run her own workshops, visited schools – and even been invited to Downing Street, and met Michelle Obama.
But Vee’s educational story is not quite straightforward. Her father died when she was young. Brought up by her mother, a mental health nurse, she moved from Zimbabwe to live in the West Midlands at seven years old, learning English as she went. She worked hard at her comprehensive school, gaining three good grades at A-level – but probably not quite enough to make a competitive application to Oxford.
How, then, did she make it? By being accepted as one of the first cohort to Lady Margaret Hall’s foundation year, which launched in October 2016. She was one of 11 students who kicked off a pioneering scheme to take young people with great potential but whose backgrounds had included considerable obstacles to learning.
Those obstacles are well known. A student from an area of economic deprivation is 27% less likely to score five A* to C grades at GCSE. There will be a similar pattern at A-level. Her school is 70% more likely to have high teacher turnover. All this is established. The policy question for universities is how to measure – and balance – potential against past attainment.
Oxford’s admissions system does try to give some context to each application in order to create a more level playing field. But the metrics of disadvantage are notoriously patchy, and it’s no secret that the university’s attempts to improve social mobility have not in the past moved the needle to a significant degree.
But Oxford is changing. The university is today announcing two major initiatives to make sure that more young people from under-represented backgrounds can find their way to the university. One is a foundation year – Foundation Oxford – which will, like the LMH pilot project, give intensive additional help to help students achieve all they could if they had come from a more economically secure background.
The other initiative – Opportunity Oxford – is based on an enterprising parallel experiment launched by Ivor Crewe at University College for students who need additional support to transition successfully from school to Oxford. The aim of expanding these two programmes is to ensure that a quarter of Oxford undergraduates will, by 2023, come from the UK’s most under-represented backgrounds.
Oxford’s record on social mobility is probably not as bad as you think it is. Research commissioned by the university a couple of years ago showed some wild misconceptions about who gets a place: some respondents thought that 95% of undergraduates went to private school. That’s wrong by about 60 percentage points (64.5% of offers went to state school pupils), as new figures for 2019 admissions will shortly show, even if the true figure is still some way out of line with the national average of the number of pupils going to state v private schools – only about 6% of the UK population go to private school.
But there is common agreement that Oxford has to do better. The university’s decision to be more proactive in releasing granular data about admissions means there is no longer anywhere to hide. Colleges or subjects that are not doing their best to admit a more diverse pool of candidates will find themselves having to explain why – to alumni and to the regulator.
LMH’s own scheme was based on a 20-year project at Trinity College Dublin, the impressive Trinity access programme. Data there shows that – with the help of a foundation year – students from low socio-economic status groups eventually perform just as well as more traditional applicants. Our own pilot project is only three years old, but we are finding the same. We have so far had 100% retention on course. Seventy per cent of the first two years matriculated as full undergraduates at Oxford.
Vee and her contemporaries from the first cohort are, as a group, performing in line with their peer group. All the students who didn’t, in the end, go on to study at Oxford received Russell Group offers, and say they benefited from the year they spent honing their academic skills.
It’s clear that creating a more level admissions playing field is not dumbing down, but helping up. Bridging and foundation years are powerful tools in allowing extraordinarily talented and committed young people to have an Oxford education. A commitment to social mobility doesn’t have to be in tension with excellence: quite the opposite.
Building on innovative experiments at individual colleges has taken some determination from three individuals – Prof Maggie Snowling, president of St John’s College, pro vice chancellor Martin Williams, and the vice chancellor, Prof Louise Richardson herself – to help change the weather across the university. Cambridge has announced it’s going to try a similar scheme.
Oxford can and should do more, but it’s now on a path to greater inclusion. Vee and her peers had few illusions about the nature of the Oxford they were joining. But they still came, they felt welcome, and they are now encouraging others to come.
LMH already looks and feels different: we have benefited immensely from the more than 30 students (nearly 10% of our annual intake) we’ve had so far on our foundation year. And now, with expanded schemes and a real commitment at the centre, significant change across Oxford looks certain to happen.
• Alan Rusbridger is principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford