The University's response to the Government's consultation document, Widening Participation in Higher Education

Supplement (1) to Gazette No. 4661 To Gazette No. 4662 (5 June 2003)

Wednesday, 4 June 2003


Note: the consultation document can be found at http://www.dfes.gov.uk/highereducation/docs/wideningparticipation.pdf

1. The University supports and endorses the Government's commitment to widening participation by students from diverse backgrounds. This is an aim which the University has held and has worked actively towards for many years.

2. We agree with the proposal that there should be a statement of high-level principles relating to good practice in admissions. Through regular reviews of our own procedures we are committed to promoting best practice in Oxford's admissions, and are currently developing our own code of practice. We note that a committee to review these matters is to be established and we are keen to contribute to this review and to offer our own experience and expertise.

3. We welcome the focus on process and on outreach and the avoidance of quotas and targets, and we note that the consultation document acknowledges the fair and non- discriminatory nature of the application processes of English universities and seeks only the means to attract more non-traditional applicants. This reflects the principles and practices already used by Oxford.

4. We welcome the statement that admission must be based on merit and that in oversubscribed universities and courses there have to be means, additional to A level, to differentiate between the many suitably qualified candidates. Oxford is continuing to explore ways of differentiating between candidates on the basis of attainment and potential, and to refine its admissions testing process, sometimes in conjunction with other universities (for example by development and use of the BMAT in Medicine). We have always been clear that the judgements we make on candidates are informed by a thorough assessment of their academic achievements and abilities, as well as their potential to flourish within the particularly intensive educational environment provided by the University.

5. All courses in Oxford are publishing their selection criteria on the University Web site and all those involved in the selection process are given appropriate training or briefing, including information about equal opportunities legislation. Because such measures are already in place, there will be no difficulty in drafting an access statement for Oxford University, covering all undergraduate colleges' admissions.

6. However, should the University decide that it will need to charge variable fees in excess of the current standard fee, we do have reservations about a more formal agreement which we feel may be too prescriptive. For example, any milestones adopted will have to depend on the level of resource within universities to continue their outreach work. We trust that the Aimhigher programme will provide the necessary resources to universities for this purpose.

7. We would also expect that Oxford's national and international roles and special mix of subjects would be taken into account in judging its access statement. Five years seems a reasonable time to cover in such a statement, bearing in mind the rapidly changing social conditions affecting applications. We are less convinced of the value of annual reporting, although these areas should, of course, be monitored, internally, every year.

8. Oxford is one of only two universities within the UK which aim to interview, as a matter of course, the vast majority of their home/EU applicants. Partially as a result of this practice, we are convinced of the value of the involvement of practising academics in selection, and we do not believe that this responsibility should be passed to professional administrators, although, of course, we recognise this may be an appropriate model for a number of institutions. Hence we welcome the statement (section four, paragraph five) that `an individual university's admissions policies and procedures will be outside the remit of the access agreement and OfFA'.

9. We agree with the conclusion drawn in section one of the consultation document that differential attainment and lack of aspiration to higher education have their roots in early childhood and that much remains to be done in nursery, primary and secondary education, and certainly before the age of sixteen, to ensure that potential applicants realise the opportunities that are open to them. It is indeed the different patterns of application that are the main cause of differential access to the top universities.

10. Oxford is already reaching out to younger pupils, as young as Year 7, and has commissioned work to understand why they may eventually choose not to apply to Oxford. It has also dealt directly with the problems of financial deterrents and debt aversion by its informative booklet `Affording University' and by publicising its bursary scheme and other college-based subsidies for accommodation, travel, computers, and books. The booklet gives clear information about the cost of studying at Oxford. We note that the Oxford Bursary Scheme is singled out for approval in the consultation document.