In Depth

How Oxford University’s ‘sea change’ in admissions will work

Two new schemes designed to boost proportion of underprivileged new students to 25% by 2023

The University of Oxford is to offer places to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who fail to get the required A-level grades under new plans aimed at boosting diversity.

The famous university has faced mounting allegations of social exclusivity, with around 40% of places going to pupils from private schools in recent years, while just 15% of undergraduate students are from deprived areas, the BBC reports.

Now, Oxford bosses are promising a “sea change” in admissions, with the launch of two new schemes designed to boost the proportion of disadvantaged students to 25% over the next four years.

Under the schemes, places will be offered to “clever pupils who would otherwise struggle to meet the final entry requirements because of their demographic, or who need help in making the transition to life at one of the highest-rated institutions in the country”, says Sky News.

How will the schemes work?

The historic institution will offer two free programmes to help disadvantaged students - Opportunity Oxford and Foundation Oxford.

From 2020, Opportunity Oxford will provide support each year for around 200 students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds who have applied in the normal way and are on course to gain the required grades but who “need help to make the jump from school”, reports Sky News.

The targeted applicants will get support for “structured study at home and then two weeks of residential study at the university ahead of the new term”.

Foundation Oxford will be a full-year programme open to students who have experienced severe disadvantages, such as refugees or young carers, and are not set to meet the requred grades.

Around 50 students will be eligible to receive offers “made on the basis of lower contextual A-level grades, rather than the university’s standard offers”, reports The Daily Telegraph. Typical offers from the university “usually range between A*A*A and AAA depending on the subject”, but those studying under the new scheme could be accepted with grades as low as ABB.

This scheme will run from 2021 and will cost the university around £20,000 per student, according to The Guardian, which says Cambridge University has announced plans to launch a similar programme.

Who will qualify?

Although most charities and commentators have welcomed the schemes, critics point out that the admissions are “mainly based on a socio-economic profile of where people live” rather than “income thresholds or ethnicity”, reports the BBC.

The schemes will use a postcode-based system called Polar, which measures local levels of deprivation or affluence by counting the number of university entries from people living in that area.

The broadcaster notes that this means “a very poor area with relatively high levels of university entry, such as in some parts of London, might not appear to be disadvantaged”.

Critics also note that some demographics - such as white working-class boys - are far less likely to even consider applying to university, a problem that the schemes do not address.

Responding to such concerns, university vice-chancellor Professor Louise Richardson acknowledged that Oxford “may be disappointing slightly different people under this initiative” but added that “those we will be disappointing will not have higher grades than those we let in”.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chair of social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, said: “It’s great to see Oxford looking to new solutions to tackle the problem of how to support students from under-represented backgrounds. The scale of these programmes is really impressive.”

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