Oxbridge Admissions

I’m writing this on my own authority; as someone who went to Oxford from a state comprehensive and state funded sixth form college and as someone with some level of expertise in access on the basis of disability, from my professional life. The detail of what I’m writing centres on Oxford, because that’s where my knowldge originates.

I’m reminded of the economics thing of “supply side” and “demand side”. Much of the work people are trying to do around Oxbridge admissions seems to be concentrated on persuading potential students they should accept what Oxbridge offers and this work has a place, but it’s only part of the story. Oxbridge has to look very closely at itself and start to adapt to become more attractive to a wider range of students.

At the moment, Oxford is not an attractive choice, compared to living in their current home (or at least home town) and going to a local university for many students from “non-traditional” backgrounds.

Language is culture and region specific and different terms mean different things to different people. Calling a sit down evening meal “supper” when that’s a usage of a term associated with a particular social class and fairly unfamiliar outside it is alienating, even though nobody would be intending the usage to be alienating. It doesn’t matter that the usage might be obvious from the context to an intelligent potential applicant; the point is the universities should be trying to meet people half way by trying to avoid this sort of loaded terminology.

So one thing, Oxbridge could do that might help is to arrange for different groups of people to test the materials they produce aimed at prospective applicants, looking for language use that is strongly associated with particular classes or regions and working out alternatives.

Another thing it could do is provide an easily accessible glossary. I had no idea what “lounge suit” meant when I started at Oxford in 1999. I didn’t really have internet access until I went to Oxford, and back then we didn’t really have search engines the way we do now (I think someone showed me how to use Alta Vista at some point, but it was most usual in those days to go to websites you already knew about via bookmarks/typing the address into the address bar).

Course structure

Some people get on better with courses with a bigger dissertation/thesis element and others with an exam element. Some people will do better with Oxford style finals where there’s an opportunity for your learning to coalesce as a whole before you sit exams. Other people will prefer courses where exams are taken more frequently.

Oxford’s slavish adherence to heavy reliance on finals is really unhelpful when thinking about attracting students from different backgrounds.

Very few Oxford courses can be taken part time. This is a barrier for disabled students, students who are carers, some students who are parents and other students who want to study whilst working. It is all the more annoying because the tutorial system certainly for arts, humanities and social sciences lends itself to flexibility. Individual or paired tutorials can be arranged at mutually convenient times with tutors. Lectures are optional and are often not well attended, as many of the people who get on with that style of learning are happier to learn by solitary reading / working with others from their College informally to discuss what they’ve read. [I accept that lab sessions for those taking science based subjects require a bit more thought, but that’s no reason to not provide for arts based subjects]

Oxford’s insistence on designating part-time students differently, in its documentation and on their library cards is part of the problem. Institutionally it sees part-time students as different to full time students.

The term structure needs to be reconsidered. The theory is that three eight week terms (with up to another week at the beginning of each term to allow for mock exams known as Collections to be taken) allows for periods of concentrated work, with the vacations free to take up paid work. For some students this works well. For those with extensive caring commitments for disabled relatives, those parenting young children and those who are disabled, this may be a less helpful model. It might be more helpful to them to spread the work out over ten or twelve week terms. Even if lectures remained concentrated in the eight weeks of full term, spreading tutorials and other small group teaching out would be likely to assist people to have a more even work/study/life balance.


The “standard” offering of accommodation is of a room within a College or nearby for two or three (or four) years of an undergraduate course. Rooms are single occupancy and very often have to be vacated during the vacations to enable Colleges to use them for conference guests who generate useful income.

Accommodation does not often come with kitchen facilities adequate for proper self catering, because the assumption is that students will eat many meals in Hall. Halls vary in their ability to cater for students who don’t eat a “standard English” diet. Vegetarians will be OK and I suspect catering staff are getting to grips with catering for students who require gluten free food but where the problem is that somebody’s diet centres around dishes from a non-English culture, the food that’s on offer will be unfamiliar and not a shared cultural thing.

In my view, there needs to be more accommodation available throughout the year to better accommodate students who don’t live with family members, including those who are formerly Looked After Children, international students, disabled students, students bringing family members with them and so on. This needs to be accommodation in self contained flats/houses, that can be occupied 365 days per year, with a sensible sized kitchen for the number of occupants.

Where this cannot be provided by individual Colleges, there should be consideration given to helping students find privately rented accommodation and using some of the available financial support to off-set their additional costs.

In addition, the peculiar, paternalistic rule, that undergraduates at Oxford must live within six miles of Carfax Tower (in the middle of Oxford City Centre) should be repealed. The University and its Colleges have no business dictating where students live and the rule contributes to the very high cost of private rental accommodation in the area. [I am aware that it is possible to apply for exemptions to the rule; the point I am making is that it is access barrier to have this as a rule at all]

Also to be considered; there are good environmental reasons to use cars less, but it is very difficult indeed to keep a car in Oxford as an undergraduate student living in College, unless you have a Blue Badge. For some people their car is essential to enable them to fulfil their caring or other responsibilities and the available public transport options aren’t a good substitute.


Students are often discouraged from accepting part time work during term time (in the context of there being three eight week terms during the year and an expectation that an undergraduate degree should be treated like a full time job for those 24 weeks).

Some bursaries and other funds may be available on application – but there is a problem with certainty here that affects people’s ability to budget.

In addition, it is not unusual for Colleges to effectively impose costs on students with an assumption that there’s money for these things eg. ball tickets can be expensive (say £60-£100+ for one night) and where balls are taking place in College, students who are living there can find themselves forced out of their own room for the night or effectively locked in and unable to leave (whilst quite possibly unable to sleep due to the noise).

This sort of thing needs to be thought about as does the price of things like matriculation photographs and the cost of buying clothes to satisfy “lounge suit” and “black tie” dress codes.

Partners and children

There are perfectly good reasons why young children need to be supervised, but Colleges are not always welcoming to students’ children – this should be an easy thing to fix. The same is true for partners – Colleges should be welcoming to the people who support students.