A relentless circle of elitism?

Oxbridge has come under fire recently, as reports reveal a shocking lack of diversity. Capital Law’s HE expert, Helen Rowland, shares her view

Both Oxford and Cambridge have longstanding reputations for being elitist. But, the news last week shows that the problem is much more severe than expected – with some reports denouncing Oxbridge for going “backwards in terms of elitism”; the “last bastion of the old school tie”. 

Even without these recent reports, it would’ve always been disingenuous to say that Oxbridge offer places based on academic results alone. There are many more individuals that are perfectly qualified for Oxbridge than there are places being offered. So, it’s always been a question of who they choose to accept – and why.

But, Oxbridge are continuing to deny that their admissions process is based on anything other than academic ability. This is grossly unfair. There are students across the country who’re more than qualified – academically – to attend these universities; the clever ones are not all pooled in the Home Counties. 

The regional bias is appalling. Oxford makes more offers to students from Eton alone, than it does to those on free school meals across the whole of England. Wales, for example, is grossly underrepresented. But, is that because proportionally fewer students apply – despite having the qualifications – in the first place? Or is it that they do apply, and just aren’t chosen – in favour of those from the Home Counties?

These statistics send prospective students a clear message: unless you fit certain, narrow criteria, it’s unlikely that you’ll get in. Oxbridge risks losing applications from students that aren’t in the same group as their current student base. After all, why would they apply, if they don’t believe they stand a chance at success?

Under the Equality Act 2010, universities have a duty to meet the Public Sector Equality Duty. This sets out that all higher education institutions need to pay ‘due regard’ to ‘advancing equality’, and ‘eliminating bias’.

‘The sooner top-tier universities recognise that they need to do more to increase diversity in their student population, and embrace every effort to improve this, the better. ‘

Now, both Oxford and Cambridge do have Equality & Diversity units that apply to their ‘staff and students’. But, while it’s great that Oxford is a Stonewall Diversity Champion for their students, do they follow these same guidelines in their selection process? Does their admissions team work collaboratively with their Equality & Diversity unit, or does diversity only become a focus once students are enrolled?

Some reports suggest that the inequality in Oxbridge’s student population is the fault of the government, rather than Oxbridge itself. It’s true that the problem with access comes way before the admissions process. If students from a state school background believe, while they’re at school, that somewhere as elitist as Oxbridge would never be the place for someone like them, while private school students are encouraged to strive for the coveted spots, it’s not surprising that fewer of them apply.

But, statistically, those that go to the top universities end up running the country. Although only 1% of the population graduated from Oxbridge, the two universities have produced most of our Prime Ministers, judges and Civil Servants. And, if the Oxbridge alumni have come from a student-base that represents only a tiny slice of the population, how can the government reflect – and promote the interests of – the general public? At the moment, Oxbridge is perpetuating a relentless circle of elitism, and inequality.

Research shows that we learn from people that are different to us. Difference can promote creative thinking, and increase self-awareness. By learning, and interacting, with others from different backgrounds, students will become more prepared for the global working world, and more likely to succeed in a competitive job market. The benefits of having a diverse, multi-cultural student base, made up of different socio-economic backgrounds, are plain to see. The sooner top-tier universities recognise that they need to do more to increase diversity in their student population, and embrace every effort to improve this, the better. 

For info on Capital Law visit capital-law.co.uk

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