Review: Oxford University and the British Class System Panel

By Eimer McAuley.

40% of students from 7% of schools. The statistic that headlines Common Ground’s panel discussion presents the extent of social inequality as an inescapable, inarguable fact.

It makes me wonder why, so often, in conversations about social inequality at Oxford, I feel like a raving conspiracy theorist. The University’s catalogue of efforts in outreach, the argument that Oxbridge is a scapegoat for wider issues of inequality in education, and the importance of maintaining an academic standard of the ‘best and brightest’, are all easily mounted defences, which suggest that the demographics of the student body aren’t the fault of the University.

So, sitting in front of the leading experts in education and access, I’m eager to hear why institutional classism and racism are so evident in Oxbridge admissions, and get some answers as to what should be done about it.

‘In 1979, we lived in a more equal society than we do today.’

OUSU VP Eden Bailey, who is chairing the debate, opens the discussion by inviting the panelists to break down the wider context that surrounds the class-based inequality represented in Oxford admissions. Dr Faiza Shaheen, the director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS), pointed to the growing gap between the most and least privileged in society.  She drove the reality of this home with the fact that, ‘in 1979, we lived in a more equal society than we do today.’

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Dr Faiza Shaheen.

The barriers that this polarizing class system presents in the education system are exacerbated by the fact that there is so often a disconnect between working-class students and the people who shape social and education policy. So levelling the playing field is about a ‘wider progressive movement’ towards a more equal education system, rather than just the outreach programs of Universities like Oxford.

Dr Shaheen argued out that, when we widen out the 40% from 7% statistic and take into consideration that independent school students make up for 35% of those achieving the minimum three A grades, it’s clear that the advantage of those who are privately educated begins long before the interview room.

With this wider context taken into account, the question arises: is social inequality in education too great a problem for Oxbridge to tackle? The panel was in agreement that the intervention needed in education is not an issue for Oxbridge alone.  However, while there is a lot that the University is doing, a lot more can be done.

‘If Oxford break down the numbers, we’ll make the points for you; it means that we can shout louder!’

Dr Samina Khan, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oxford, outlined the main aims of the University’s outreach work. Oxford works with students from state school backgrounds through residentials and masterclasses, in order to help them ‘realise what aspiration is’, as aspiration, she argued, ‘is not limited to class’. A huge obstacle that faces students who do aspire towards Oxbridge, is one of cultural capital. Privately educated students who are trained for the Oxbridge application system will inevitably be more widely read and prepared for interview. Dr Khan claimed that academics are working on an online portal which will provide advice on what to read and how to prepare for the application process, but also said it would be worth looking into ‘working with teachers’ so that response to unfamiliar materials and additional reading can be ‘integrated at an earlier age’ for state school students.

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Dr Samina Khan.

Dr Faizia Shaheen, however, argued that Oxford could be involved with the dialogue on earlier education without getting political, through ‘hiring academics to make statements about investment in education, without representing the institutions.’

Oxbridge could also play ball, according to Dr Shaheen, by publishing a greater breakdown of admissions statistics: by household income, comprehensive school/grammar school, and regional area. She seemed to be challenging the panelists involved in Oxbridge admissions directly when she said ‘if Oxford break down the numbers, we’ll make the points for you; it means that we can shout louder!’

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Naomi Kellman.

Panelist Naomi Kellman runs the access scheme target Oxbridge, which provides black students and students of mixed race with black heritage with support and advice on applying to Oxford. As Naomi is also an alumnus of Lincoln college, she was able to bring her own experiences as a mixed race student from East London and her experiences in working with applicants to the discussion.

‘One boy wanted to be a lawyer, and had just achieved the top GCSE grades in his school.  He had plenty of aspiration, he just didn’t have any incentive to apply to Oxford based on what he had seen.’

Naomi said that one of the main difficulties for the students she works with is confidence; because they ‘lack social capital’, their instinct when challenged is to ‘close down and say I don’t know.’ For many of these students, media representation can seriously affect their perspective on whether Oxbridge is achievable for them or not. In the year Naomi got into Oxford, the media reported that only one black student was admitted. She said that, ‘as a mixed race student, I know how impactful those stories can be. It makes you think… if you really want to go there.’ This, she argued, is the reason why the ACS photo campaign this year was so important, it makes a massive difference for students to see that there are actually black students here.’

Members of the Oxford ACS represent the black male population at the university.

Coming away from the panel discussion, the one point that didn’t sit well with me was the idea of inspiring state school kids to aspire to Oxbridge. At a summer school for Northern Irish students, I realised why. The students I worked with spent three days having mock tutorials, punting, and going to formal hall in New College, where stern portraits of old men stared down at them as they suspiciously tried the pomegranate sauce. On the last day I ran into a group of students and they told me they didn’t think they would apply, because they couldn’t see themselves here; Oxford wasn’t for them.

One boy wanted to be a lawyer, and had just achieved the top GCSE grades in his school.  He had plenty of aspiration, he just didn’t have any incentive to apply to Oxford based on what he had seen. In the end I bet him a tenner he’d at least get an interview and he took me up on it. I realised that Oxford needs to present itself as somewhere that state school and BME students can visualize themselves, somewhere that is for them. Aspiration and incentive go hand in hand.

Dr Samina Khan made the point, however, that we as students have a part to play in changing Oxford’s social image. ‘So don’t accept formal hall’ she argued, ‘vote to get rid of scholar’s gowns’. I think she’s right, we need to present an Oxford that doesn’t look like it just caters to the posh and privately educated. Plus, I can only afford to make so many ten pound bets on the best and the brightest.


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