How strong is Oxbridge access?

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This post assesses how well Oxford and Cambridge Universities support fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending state-funded schools and colleges.

courtesy of Wellcome Images

courtesy of Wellcome Images

It sets out an evidence base to inform and support an Access Lecture I have been asked to give at Brasenose College, Oxford on 28 April 2015.

The outline for that Lecture is as follows:

‘If national efforts:

  • by state-funded schools and colleges to close high attainment gaps between learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds
  • by selective higher education institutions to secure fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

could be integrated more effectively, much more substantial progress could be achieved on both fronts.

There is scope for reform in both sectors, to ensure a closer fit between the ‘push’ from schools and colleges and the ‘pull’ from higher education.

Faster progress will be achieved through a national framework that brings greater coherence to the market on both the demand and supply sides. It should be feasible to focus all support directly on learners, regardless of their educational setting.

Oxford and Cambridge should position themselves at the forefront of such efforts, serving as beacons of excellence and exemplary practice.’

This is a companion piece to two previous posts:

The first of these explores the issue from first principles, considering measures, targets and data before outlining a 10-point improvement plan. The second advances a simplified version of this plan.

This post concentrates principally on description of the access-related activities of these two universities, placing those in the wider context of updated material about national policy developments and the relatively disappointing outcomes achieved to date.

It is organised into five main sections:

  • A review of key changes to the national access effort since November 2013.
  • A note on outcomes, which questions whether Oxbridge reflects the positive trends reported for selective higher education as a whole.
  • In depth analysis of how fair access work has developed, at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, as revealed by their successive access agreements.
  • Analysis of signature access programmes at Oxford and Cambridge, featuring their rival residential summer schools and efforts to develop a longer term relationship with disadvantaged students, as recommended by Offa.
  • My personal assessment of strengths and areas for development, including a slightly revised version of the improvement strategy I have proposed in earlier posts.

Given the length of the post I have inserted page jumps to each section.

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Recent developments in national fair access policy

My November 2013 post supplies considerable detail about the regulation of fair access to English universities which I shall not repeat here.

Amongst other things, it deals with:

  • Published data on high attainment by disadvantaged students and their progression to Oxbridge – and how this has not always been used appropriately.

This section describes briefly the principal changes to the national fair access mechanisms introduced by and subsequent to the National Strategy – and explains how access agreements fit into these mechanisms.

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National Strategy for Access and Student Success

The National Strategy sets out a ‘student lifecycle approach’ in which access forms the first of three main stages.

It seeks to address:

‘…the wide gap in participation rates between people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in society, and between students with different characteristics, particularly at the most selective institutions.’

There are six key actions:

  • Introduce a national approach to collaborative outreach that will foster new collaborative partnerships, reduce duplication and support the tracking of students who have undertaken outreach activities. Hefce will fund the national roll-out of a tracking system.
  • Secure a more coherent approach to the provision of information, advice and guidance. HE outreach activity and schools policy will be ‘joined up’.
  • Develop a national evaluation framework, so universities can evaluate their activities more effectively and provide comparable national data. Hefce and Offa will examine the feasibility of sector-wide evaluation measures and publish good practice guidance by January 2015.
  • Co-ordinate national research into access, build the evidence base for effective outreach and share good practice.
  • Introduce a joint HEFCE-Offa approach to requesting information from institutions and
  • Encourage institutions to re-balance their funding from financial support towards outreach and collaborative outreach’.

The new national approach to collaborative outreach will be derived from a set of principles (the emboldening is mine):

  • ‘Outreach is most effective when delivered as a progressive, sustained programme of activity and engagement over time.
  • Outreach programmes need to be directed towards young people at different stages of their educational career and begin at primary level.
  • The effective delivery of outreach programmes requires the full, adequately resourced involvement and engagement of HEIs, FECs and schools.
  • The collaborative provision of outreach delivers significant benefits in terms of scale, engagement, co-ordination and impartiality.
  • Progression pathways for learners with non-traditional or vocational qualifications need to be clearly articulated.
  • Outreach to mature learners depends on good links with FECs, employers and the community.
  • Without good advice and guidance, outreach is impoverished and less effective.’

In November 2013, institutions were advised that they would be expected to prepare their own Strategies for Access and Student Success (SASS), which would replace Offa’s access agreements and Hefce’s widening participation strategic statements.

These would cover the period 2014-19, incorporating the information and commitments that would otherwise have featured in 2015-16 access agreements. In future these arrangements would be updated each spring. Full guidance was promised by late January 2014.

However, further guidance was issued in February 2014 stating that separate returns would continue because:

‘…of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ unexpected delay in sending HEFCE’s grant letter, and because we appreciate that institutions need to make progress with their access and student success plans, which must be approved by the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education. Separating our information requirements is the most pragmatic approach at this time.’

Hefce now says:

‘We are no longer requesting widening participation strategic statements from institutions and are moving towards an outcomes framework for 2014-15 onwards.’

It appears that the SASS concept has been set aside permanently. Certainly Offa’s 2016-17 guidance (February 2015) envisages the continuation of separate access agreements, although there is now a single monitoring return to Offa and Hefce.

Initiatives prompted by the National Strategy

The outcomes framework will be informed by two research projects, one developing a data return, the other designed to establish how an outcomes framework ‘could lead us to understand the relative impact of a wider range of access and student success activities and expenditure’.

As far as I can establish there has been nothing further on evaluation. Hefce’s website mentions guidance, but the link is to material published in 2010

However, the current work programme does include rolling out a Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) which helps universities track outreach participants through to HE entry. Hefce is funding this to the tune of £3m over 2014-17, but institutions must also pay a subscription – and only 21 are currently signed up.

The strategy is also establishing National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCOs) which, it is claimed:

‘will deliver a nationally coordinated approach to working with schools, universities and colleges to help people access HE’.

In fact, the purpose of the networks is almost exclusively the provision of information.

They will supply a single point of contact providing information for teachers and advisers about outreach activity in their area, as well as general advice about progression to HE. They will undertake this through websites to be available ‘in early spring 2015’.

At the time of writing, Hefce’s website merely lists the institutions participating in each network – there are no links to live websites for any of these.

There is a budget of £22m for the networks over academic years 2014/15 and 2015/16. Each network receives £120,000 per year and there is also a small additional allocation for each institution.

Three of the networks have national reach, one of them to support students wishing to progress to Oxbridge. This is called the Oxford and Cambridge Collaborative Network. Oxford is the lead institution.

A Google search confirms no web presence at the time of writing. However Oxford’s press release says:

‘Oxford will lead the Oxford and Cambridge NNCO, which will aim to offer specific support to students hoping to study at Oxford and Cambridge by reaching out to students and teachers in more than 1,600 schools across England. The collaboration will build on the current information and advice already offered to students and teachers, but enhanced by activities including a new interactive website, online webinars with admissions staff from Oxford and Cambridge, and more resources for activities in local schools linked to Oxford and Cambridge colleges….

… Online webinars with admissions staff from both universities will make it easier to make contact with students and schools from hard to reach geographic areas, and those schools with limited numbers of high-achieving students each year.

The new network will aim to work with state schools across England with particular emphasis on those in areas that currently have little engagement with Oxford and Cambridge outreach; those in schools offering post-16 (GCSE) education; those from schools with low progression to Oxford or Cambridge, or from areas of socioeconomic disadvantage.’

Offa guidance and strategic plan

Offa’s latest access agreement guidance (for 2016-17 agreements) sets out future priorities that are consistent with the national strategy. These include:

  • Greater emphasis on long-term outreach: ‘Evidence suggests that targeted, longterm outreach which boosts achievement and aspirations among disadvantaged people is a more effective way of widening access than institutional financial support. Where appropriate, you should therefore consider how you can strengthen your work to raise the aspiration and attainment of potential students of all ages, from primary school pupils through to adults.’
  • More effective collaboration: ‘Collaboration between institutions providing outreach is not limited to alliances of higher education institutions (HEIs). We would normally expect collaborative outreach to include many stakeholders rather than to be between a single HEI and schools, colleges or other stakeholders receiving outreach. For example, collaboration may be between one HEI and further education colleges (FECs), other higher education providers, employers, third sector organisations, schools, colleges, training providers, local authorities and so on.’
  • Stretching targets for achieving faster progress: ‘we now ask you to review and set new stretching targets which set out the desired outcomes of the work set out in your access agreement. When reviewing your targets, we expect all institutions, particularly those with relatively low proportions of students from under-represented groups, to demonstrate how they intend to make faster progress in improving access, success and/or progression for these students. This is in line with the aims expressed in our forthcoming strategic plan, which is informed by guidance from Ministers.’

This strategic plan was published in February 2015. It notes that, while some progress has been made in improving access for disadvantaged students to selective higher education, there is much more still to do.

‘Despite these improvements, the gaps between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged people remain unacceptably large. The latest UCAS data shows that, on average, the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people are 2.5 times more likely to go to higher education than the most disadvantaged 20 per cent. At the most selective institutions this ratio increases – with the most advantaged young people on average 6.8 times more likely to attend one of these institutions compared to the most disadvantaged young people.’

One of Offa’s targets (described as ‘Sector Outcome Objectives’) is:

‘To make faster progress to increase the entry rate of students from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups entering more selective institutions, and narrow the participation gap between people from the most and least advantaged backgrounds at such institutions.’

The measure selected is English 18-year-old entry rates by POLAR 2 for higher tariff providers. The targets are:

‘….for the entry rate from quintile 1 to increase from 3.2 per cent in 2014-15 to 5 per cent by 2019-20, and from 5.1 per cent in 2014-15 to 7 per cent by 2019-20 for quintile 2. To reduce the gap in participation, our target is for the quintile 5: quintile 1 ratio to decrease from 6.8 in 2014-15 to 5.0 by 2019-20.’

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A Note on Outcomes

High tariff HEIs

As Offa suggests, there is some cause for optimism about wider progress towards fair access, albeit from an exceedingly low base.

The UCAS End of Cycle Report 2014 indicates that:

  • Students from POLAR Quintile 1 are 40% more likely to enter a high-tariff institution than in 2011, though the percentage achieving this is still tiny (it has increased from 2.3% to 3.2%).
  • FSM-eligible students (the Report doesn’t indicate whether they were ‘ever 6 FSM’ or FSM in Year 11) are 50% more likely to enter a higher tariff institution than in 2011, but the 2014 success rate is still only 2.1%.

As noted above, Offa’s Strategic Plan for 2015-20 includes a target to increase the POLAR Quintile 1 success rate from 3.2% to 5% by 2019-20.

This is an increase of 56% in the six years between 2014 and 2020, compared with an increase of 40% in the three years between 2011 and 2014. Looked at in this way it is relatively unambitious.

But what of Oxbridge? How does its performance compare with other high-tariff institutions?

Oxbridge argues that it is a special case – because of its higher entrance requirements – so should not be judged by the same criteria as other high tariff institutions. It is for this reason that Oxford and Cambridge are reluctant to be assessed against HESA’s Performance Indicators.

Offa’s access agreement methodology enables universities to set targets that reflect their different circumstances, but its own KPIs are framed according to national measures which might not be appropriate to some.

There is no separate Offa target to improve Oxbridge access. When it comes to system-wide performance measures, only DfE’s Impact Indicator 12: Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to Oxford or Cambridge University is specific to Oxbridge.

This is based on the DfE’s experimental Destination Measures statistics. FSM eligibility is determined in Year 11 rather than via the ‘ever 6’ methodology.

The Indicator reports an increase from 0.1% in 2010/11 to 0.2% in 2011/12. (This compares with a reported increase in FSM progression to Russell Group universities from 3.0% to 4.0%)

However, as I have pointed out:

  • The 2010/11 intake was 30 and the 2011/12 intake 50.
  • The 2011/12 intake comprised 40 students from state-funded schools and 10 from state-funded colleges, but both numbers are rounded to the nearest 10.
  • The 2012/13 intake, not yet incorporated into the Indicator, is unchanged from 2010-11, both numbers again rounded to the nearest 10, so any improvement achieved in 2011/12 stalled completely in 2012/13.

The most recent data reported to Offa by Oxford and Cambridge also relates to 2012/13.

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Cambridge

Cambridge uses the POLAR Quintile 1 measure, also a HESA benchmark, though adjusted downwards to reflect its high attainment threshold. It is aiming for a target of 4.0% by 2016/17, against a 2009/10 baseline of 3.1%.

The 2011/12 outcome is given as 2.5%. The 2012/13 line is blank, on the grounds that HESA has not yet reported it. We can now see that the outcome was in fact 3.5% (POLAR2), so a significant improvement, more than catching up the decline the previous year. HESA has recently published the 2013/14 outcome, which is 3.6%, a very slight improvement on the previous year

HESA’s own benchmarks for Cambridge (again POLAR2) were 4.4% in 2011/12, 4.7% in 2012/13 and 4.6% in 2013/14, so it continues to undershoot these quite significantly.

In its latest 2015/16 agreement, Cambridge’s 2017/18 target is unchanged at 4.0% (but now transferred to POLAR3 quintile 1). It has not set a target for 2018/19.

Given Offa’s commitment to achieving a 5.0% outcome by 2019/20, it will be interesting to see where Cambridge pitches its own target in its 2016-17 access agreement. Will it, too, aim for 5%, or will it scale back its own target on the grounds that the attainment profile of its intake is atypically high?

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Oxford

Oxford opts for a different measure. It only reports outcomes for POLAR Quintiles 1 and 2 combined, which is insufficiently specific, using a measure based on ACORN postcode analysis as its principal indicator of access for disadvantaged students.

On this second measure, it reports a target of 9.0% by 2016/17 against a 2009/10 baseline of 6.1% and, more recently, has projected this forward to 10% by 2018/19.

The 2011/12 outcome is 7.6% and the 2012/13 outcome is 6.7%. This fall of 0.9% is annotated ‘Progress made – but less than anticipated’.

If we were to apply the POLAR2 HESA Quintile 1 measure to Oxford, it would have registered 2.6% in 2011/12 (against a HESA benchmark of 4.7%), 3.0% in 2012/13 (against a benchmark of 4.9%) and only 2.4% in 2013/14 (against a benchmark of 4.8%).

The reason is presumably the atypical attainment threshold for admission to Oxford.

Oxford does not have the benefit of an Offa marker against which to pitch its ACORN target for 2019-20.

Comparing Oxford and Cambridge

Graph 1, below, illustrates progress against each university’s principal measure of fair access, as well as the trend implied by its targets.

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Oxbridge graph 1

Graph 1: Oxford and Cambridge: Progress against principal fair access target and projected outcomes for future years

The graph shows inconsistent progress to 2012/13. Oxford’s trend is broadly positive, but Cambridge has not yet caught up where it was in 2008/09. The trajectory implied by Oxford’s targets is more ambitious than Cambridge’s.

Graph 2, below provides further analysis of Oxford’s outcomes, based on data provided in the most recent 2015-16 access agreement. Unfortunately Cambridge is less transparent in this respect.

Graph 2 shows the same pattern of progress against the ACORN target as in Graph 1, except that the 2013 figure is an actual outcome (6.8%) rather than a target (7.5%).

It also shows for each year the percentage of all applicants from ACORN 4/5 postcodes who applied successfully. These compare with a success rate for all applicants of around 20%, giving a gap of three or four percentage points to make up. Progress on this measure has also fluctuated, falling back significantly in 2010 and not yet returning to the mark achieved in 2009.

Preliminary data for 2014 suggests a significant improvement, however. The agreement says that 320 conditional offers have been made, giving an estimated figure for acceptances of 275 (my estimate, not Oxford’s) and a corresponding success rate of 19.2%. If confirmed, this will be a significant step forward.

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Oxbridge graph 2

Graph 2:  The percentage of all successful applicants drawn from ACORN 4/5 postcodes and the percentage of all applicants from ACORN 4/5 postcodes who are successful, 2008-2013

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Graph 3, below is derived from the data underpinning the DfE’s experimental KS5 destination statistics for 2010 to 2011, 2011 to 2012 and 2012 to 2013. It provides, for each year, the percentage of admissions to Oxbridge, Russell Group, Top Third and all HEIs accounted for by FSM students.

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Additional Oxbridge graphGraph 3: Percentage of admissions to Oxbridge, RG, Top third and all HEIs accounted for by FSM students, 2010/11 to 2012/13 (From DfE destination statistics, underlying data)

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The Oxbridge data, especially, must be treated with a degree of caution, since all figures are derived from separate totals for state-funded schools and colleges, each rounded to the nearest 10. Consequently, changes from year to year may be inflated or deflated by the generous rounding.

Nevertheless, one can see that FSM admission to Oxbridge continues to lag well behind the rates for admission to selective higher education more generally. Although one might argue that Oxbridge is improving at a faster rate, it is doing so from a significantly lower base and, in the most recent year (2012/13), the improvement in all other respects is not mirrored in the Oxbridge figures.

Although the rounded number of FSM admissions to Oxbridge in 2012/13 remained unchanged from 2011/12 (at 50) the number of non-FSM admissions increased by 190, so dragging down the percentage.

To summarise:

  • There is an unhelpful two-year lag in outcomes data and limited commonality in the basis of the measures used to set targets, making comparison much more difficult than it needs to be.
  • Neither university routinely releases details of the number of FSM or ‘ever 6’ FSM students within its intake, but DfE destinations data, also affected by a two-year lag, shows that FSM admissions to Oxbridge are significantly lower than to selective HE more generally. The actual number of FSM students admitted has been more or less stalled at 50 or fewer for a decade.
  • Fair access to Oxbridge is improving slightly, but not consistently. Cambridge has not yet caught up where it was in 2008/09. Oxford’s progress is more secure than Cambridge’s, and Oxford’s target is more challenging.

Access Agreements

Access agreements are approved annually by Offa, which issues annual guidance to inform the review process.

It looks particularly at the nature of the access measures adopted, the resources allocated and whether targets and milestones are suitably challenging.

Offa archives old access agreements on its website as well as universities’ self-assessments. The latter should:

  • ‘assess their progress against each target they set themselves in their agreements
  • provide data showing their progress against targets for each academic year since 2006-07 and
  • provide a commentary setting their access work in context, highlighting any particular challenges they have faced, and, if they have not made as wished, explaining the reasons for this.’

The archive includes:

  • Access agreements for Oxford and Cambridge for 2006-07 through to 2015-16 and
  • Self -assessments for Oxford and Cambridge for 2010-11 through to 2012-13

Self-assessments for 2013-14 were due during January 2015 but have not yet been published. In previous years they have not appeared until July.

Access agreements for 2016-17 are due for submission during April 2015. They too are unlikely to appear before July.

Analysis of how access agreements have changed over time provides a valuable insight into the evolution of institutional policies, including the extent to which these have been modified in line with Offa’s guidance.

Comparison between Oxford and Cambridge’s access agreements also helps to draw out key differences between their respective access policies, as well as comparative strengths and weaknesses and areas in which they might potentially learn from each other.

The sections below explore the chronological development of each university’s access agreement under four headings:

  • Budget: The total budget devoted to activity within scope of the agreement, and the balance between funding for bursaries and outreach respectively
  • Bursaries: The bursaries provided to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Outreach: The range of activities undertaken 
  • Targets: The targets and milestones set and progress against those not already discussed above.

I have also included a section of Commentary, intended to capture observations that throw additional light on the institution’s approach and attitude to access.

It is important to note that the two universities now adopt a somewhat different approach to the nature of access agreements.

The agreements for 2006-07 were nine (Oxford) and eight (Cambridge) pages in length. Cambridge’s 2015-16 agreement is slightly longer, at 11 pages, but Oxford’s is 48 pages long.

In recent years, Oxford’s agreement has consistently been much more detailed and more informative. This distinction will be apparent from the analysis below.

Moreover, Cambridge’s agreement was unchanged from 2006-07 to 2009-10, whereas Oxford’s changed somewhat in this period. Both universities submitted single agreements for 2010-11 and 2011-12, but both have changed their agreements – at least to some degree – each year since then.

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Budget (£m pa)

Costs are not always as clearly expressed as one would wish, nor are they always fully comparable. This is despite the fact that Offa now produces a template for the purpose.

There is very limited information in Cambridge’s most recent agreement, whereas Oxford supplies extensive detail, including (at Offa’s behest) what is and is not ‘Offa-countable’:

‘When calculating your progression spend, please note that OFFA’s remit only extends to students and courses that are fee-regulated. This means that only measures targeted at undergraduate students (or postgraduate ITT students) from under-represented and disadvantaged groups should be included in your OFFA-countable spend. For example, you should not include spend on financial support for postgraduate students in your OFFA-countable expenditure, although you may include this in your total expenditure on progression.’ (Offa, 2015-16 Resource Plan)

The tables below represent my best effort at harvesting comparable figures. The first table summarises Cambridge’s budget, the second Oxford’s.

Year Bursaries Outreach Total Notes
2006-10 £7.0m £1.15m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..£0.425m of outreach budget from AimHigher and Hefce funds.
2010-12 £7.5m £1.15m £8.65m Bursary cost in steady state..£0.45m of outreach budget from AimHigher and Hefce funds.
2012-13 £8.3m £4.2m £12.5m Bursary cost in steady state and includes £1.2m steady state assumption for NSP..Total outreach cost includes £2.7m current expenditure plus £1.5m from fee income.
2013-14 £8.3m £4.2m £12.5m As above.
2014-15 £8.0m £4.66m £12.66m Bursary cost in steady state and includes £0.9m for NSP..Total outreach cost includes £2.7m current expenditure plus £1.96m fee income (of which £0.258m is redirected from NSP).
2015-16 £6.9m £3.0m £9.9m Bursary cost in steady state..Total outreach cost includes unspecified fee income.

Table 1: Summary of costs in Cambridge’s access agreements, 2006-2016

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Year Bursaries Outreach Total Notes
2006-07 £6.8m £1.35m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..An additional £3m is provided through college support.
2007-08 £6.8m £1.35m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..An additional £3m is provided through college support.
2008-09 £6.3m £1.075m £7.375m Bursary cost in steady state.
2009-10 £6.4m £0.968m £7.368m Bursary cost in steady state.
2010-11 £6.4m £0.968m £7.368m Bursary cost in steady state.
2011-12 £6.6m £1.415m £8.015m
2012-13 £8.8m £2.6m £11.65m Bursary total included £2.2m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.25m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.4m
2013-14 £9.4m.(£9.4m) £4.52m.(£2.44m) £13.92m Bursary total includes £2.9m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.41m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.79m

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Figures in brackets are ‘offa-countable’

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2014-15 £11.32m.(£11.05m) £5.23m.(£2.92m) £16.55m Bursary includes £4.06m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.54m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.34m

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Figures in brackets are ‘offa-countable’

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2015-16 £10.89m.(£10.6m) £5.67m.(£3.24m) £16.56m Bursary includes £3.63m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.71m for retention, support and employability.Of total only £13.81m is ‘offa-countable’

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Table 2: Summary of costs in Oxford’s access agreements, 2006-2016

These suggest that:

  • Total combined expenditure in 2006-07 was £16.3m, but by 2015-16, this had increased to £23.74m (excluding Oxford’s ‘non-offa countable’ expenditure, an increase of around 46%.
  • Whereas in 2006-07, both Universities were spending exactly the same, by 2015-16, total expenditure at Cambridge had increased by some 21%, while total Offa-countable expenditure at Oxford had increased by about 70%.
  • In 2005-06, the percentage of total funding spent on bursaries was 86% at Cambridge and 83% at Oxford. By 2015-16, the comparable percentages are 70% and 77%. Hence Cambridge has reduced the proportion spent on bursaries more substantively than Oxford, but both Universities continue to direct their funding predominantly towards bursaries.
  • In 2005-06, expenditure on bursaries by each university was very similar. Although the total devoted to bursaries by Cambridge increased slightly in the intervening years, by 2015-16 it was almost the same as in 2005-06. However, expenditure on bursaries at Oxford is some 56% above what it was in 2005-06.
  • Since 2005-06, both Oxford and Cambridge have more than doubled their expenditure on outreach. Taken together, the two universities expect to spend some £6.24m on outreach in 2015-16. Cambridge’s ratio of bursary to outreach spend is approaching 2:1, whereas Oxford’s is more than 3:1.
  • Although the sums they now spend on outreach (offa-countable in Oxford’s case) are relatively similar, Cambridge spends 30% of its total expenditure on outreach while Oxford spends 23%. However, Cambridge spends significantly less than it did at its peak in 2014-15, while Oxford’s expenditure has increased steadily since 2010-11.

Bursaries

Bursary arrangements have shifted subtly, especially as NSP fee waivers have arrived and then disappeared. The details below relate only to the most generous bursary rates for students with the lowest residual household incomes.

Cambridge’s access agreements suggest that:

  • For 2006-10 Cambridge’s bursary offer for students eligible for a full maintenance grant – with a residual household income of £16,000 or below – is £3,000 per year. It estimates that some 10% of its full fee-paying undergraduates – around 955 students – will qualify.
  • For 2010-12 the maximum bursary is £3,400 for all students qualifying for a full maintenance grant – now equivalent to a residual household income of £25,000 or below – and about 1,100 students (13% of Cambridge’s UK undergraduates) will qualify.
  • For 2012-13 the maximum bursary is £3,500 for those with a full maintenance grant. There is an additional fee waiver of £6,000 in the first year of study for such students who are also from ‘particularly disadvantaged backgrounds’ including those formerly in receipt of FSM. (The University points out that these are the Government’s criteria).
  • For 2013-14 the same arrangements apply.
  • For 2014-15 the same arrangements apply, except that recipients can no longer allocate part of their bursary towards an additional fee waiver.
  • For 2015-16 only the bursary of £3,500 remains in place for those with a full maintenance grant.

Oxford’s access agreements reveal that:

  • In 2006-07, students whose residual household income is below £17,500 receive a bursary of £3,000 per year, plus an additional £1,000 in the first year of the course. About 1,200 students are expected to benefit.
  • From 2007-08, these rates increase to £3,070 and £1,025 extra in the first year.
  • From 2008-09, new entrants with a residual household income below £25,000 receive a bursary of £3,150, but all those with an income below £18,000 will receive an extra £850 in the first year of their course.
  • In 2009-10, these rates increase to £3,225 and £875 respectively. This is unchanged for 2010-11.
  • In 2012-13, students with a residual household income below £16,000 a year will receive a bursary of £3,300 per year, plus a tuition fee waiver of £5,500 in the first year of the course and £3,000 in subsequent years.
  • In 2013-14, these arrangements are unchanged.
  • In 2014-15, the bursary rate remains at £3,300, but the fee waiver is reduced to £3,000 a year.
  • In 2015-16, the bursary rate increases substantively to £4,500 per year. A more select group of Moritz-Heyman scholars (with residual income below £16,000 but also ‘flagged on a number of contextual data disadvantage indicators’ ) also receive an annual tuition fee waiver of £3,000

In more recent agreements, Cambridge’s maximum rate of bursary is available for all students below a residual income of £25,000, whereas at Oxford it is confined to students with a residual income of less than £16,000.

Hence Cambridge is comparatively more generous to students with a residual income above £16,000 but below £25,000.

Until 2015-16, the maximum bursary rates were broadly similar, but Oxford has now added a significant increase, offering £1,000 more than Cambridge. Moreover, a fee waiver remains in place for the most disadvantaged students.

Hence Oxford is now more generous to students with a residual income below £16,000. Oxford argues:

‘The University will be monitoring the level of students from households with income of less than £16,000. It is considered that these are the most financially disadvantaged in society, and it is below this threshold that some qualify for receipt of free schools meals, and consideration for the proposed pupil premium. The University does not consider that identifying simply those students who have actually been in receipt of free school meals provides a suitably robust indicator of disadvantage as they are not available in every school or college with post-16 provision, nor does every eligible student choose to receive them.’

The 2014-15 agreement states that 30% of 2012 entrants in receipt of the full bursary – and so with a household income of £16,000 or less – were educated in the independent sector. These students would of course be ineligible for FSM and pupil premium.

The 2015-16 agreement adds that roughly 10% of Home/EU full time undergraduates would qualify for such a bursary. This is supported by the University’s published admissions statistics for 2013, which give the percentage as 9.9% and the number of students as 297.

In 2013, we know that 2,510 admissions were from England, so we can estimate the number of English full bursary holders at approximately 250, of which some 175 were educated in the maintained sector.

But DfE’s destination indicators suggest that only some 25 of these were FSM-eligible.

And other DfE research suggests that only some 14% of students entitled to FSM are not claiming (though that rises to 22% for 15 year-olds).

Taking the latter figure, one might conclude that roughly 30 of the 175 were FSM eligible or non-claimants, so what of the remaining 145 (some 83%)?

It seems likely that they were drawn into residual household income of £16,000 or lower by some combination of:

  • Allowances for additional dependent children (£1,130 per dependent child)
  • Allowances for AVCs and other pension contributions
  • Other allowable expenses.

Interestingly Oxford’s 2013 admissions data shows that the proportion of its intake with incomes between £16,000 and £25,000 was roughly half that of the group with incomes below £16,000.

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Outreach

Cambridge

For 2006-2012, Cambridge divides its outreach provision into three categories:

  • Activity to encourage applications from under-represented groups to Cambridge. This is targeted at students in the first generation in their families to attend HE; those who attend schools or colleges with low or below average GCSE and A level performance; and those attending schools or colleges with little recent history of sending students to Cambridge. Three sub-categories are identified: information events for teachers and parents, residential Easter and summer schools and a miscellany of visits to Cambridge, visits to schools, masterclasses, workshops, study days etc.
  • Collaborative activities with other HE partners to raise aspirations and encourage participation. This includes regional Aimhigher projects and gifted and talented events provided through NAGTY.
  • General aspiration-raising activities for the HE sector generally. These are predominantly subject-based and online activities.

For 2012-16, Cambridge continues to describe its provision under the first and third of these categories, adding that both involve collaborative work. It also identifies a wider range of target groups:

‘These include children in care; students eligible for free school meals [NB]; Black, Asian and minority ethnicity students; mature learners; students educated in further education colleges; and bright students in schools and colleges which have not historically sent students to the University of Cambridge.’

‘Or previously eligible’ is added to FSM eligibility in later iterations.

The description of provision is short, mentioning a national programme of visits and events provided by colleges through an Area Links Scheme plus centrally provided summer schools and taster events.

Five priorities are identified:

  • Increasing the number of places available on events with demonstrable impact, particularly summer schools, taster days and events for teachers.
  • Preserving the legacy of local Aimhigher work.
  • Providing a sustained programme of advice and activities for younger students in local secondary schools.
  • Developing initiatives to encourage state school students to choose appropriate subject combinations and apply to selective universities and.
  • Working closely with Oxford

A sixth priority is added in 2013-14 – ensuring PGCE intakes reflect the population from which Cambridge recruits and building networks of graduate teachers to support wider outreach activity.

In 2014-15 these priorities are unchanged, except that the second and third are conflated into one. There is also an added reference to the long-term nature of some of this work:

‘A number of our initiatives engage with younger age groups and consist of a series of sustained engagements over a number of years. For example, our work in Cambridgeshire and with looked-after children involves secondary school students of all ages, whilst our core programme for black, Asian and minority ethnicity students is delivered to each cohort over a three year period.’

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Oxford

Oxford’s outreach activity is harder to synthesise, because the agreements vary more often and some of more recent are so much more detailed.

In its 2006-07 Agreement, Oxford establishes a distinction between activities designed to encourage applications to the University and more general aspiration-raising activities.

However, these are not separately identified in the list it provides, which includes:

  • Hosting Aspiration Days for students from Years 9-11 drawn from ‘Oxford’s specific “target areas”’
  • A HEFCE specialist summer school for 150 Year 11 students from under-represented groups
  • Local Aimhigher provision
  • A programme of some 500 annual outreach visits targeting schools and colleges with little history of sending students to Oxford or into HE more generally
  • A Year 12 Sutton Trust Summer School for 250 students from non-traditional backgrounds
  • A programme of regional events to encourage applications from non-traditional backgrounds
  • A programme of events for teachers from schools with little history of sending students to Oxford, supporting some 100 teachers a year
  • Support for student-led programmes including the Oxford Access Scheme (for students from inner city schools) and a Target Schools Scheme run by the Student Union
  • A Further Education Access Initiative reaching 100 colleges a year and
  • Subject-specific enrichment activities.

In the following year, the items on the list change slightly. The University is said to be undertaking a thorough audit of these activities.

By 2008-09, Oxford describes the objective of its access work as increasing representation from: state school students, students from lower socio-economic groups, students from BME groups and care leavers.

It is focused on two areas: increasing the number of high quality applications from target groups and ensuring fair admissions processes. It undertakes wider aspirations-raising work on top of this.

The list of central access initiatives annexed to the agreement is missing.

For 2009-10 and 2010-11, the agreement refers to ‘detailed operational plans’ being developed to achieve its objectives.

By 2011-12, Oxford has added a third area of focus to the two immediately above: ensuring that teachers and advisers are able to support intending applicants.

Detailed operational plans are still under development. However, the subsequent agreements introduce several key elements:

  • UNIQ residential summer schools for Year 12 students. Participants are selected on the basis of GCSE A* performance compared with their average school attainment, ACORN postcode, school’s history of sending pupils to Oxford and any care history. A personal statement is also required. There were 380 participants in 2009, rising to 500 in 2010. Capacity is projected to increase to 650 in 2011, 700 in 2012, 850 in 2013, and 1000 participants in 2014.
  • By 2012-13, two other ‘flagship programmes’ are identified: a programme of seven regional one-day teacher conferences and a link programme connecting every local authority with a named college. Participants in the teacher conferences are drawn from schools and colleges with low numbers of students achieving high grades or limited success in achieving offers. Oxford’s target is a 15% success rate for applications from these teachers’ schools.
  • In 2013-14, there is the first reference to a Pathways Programme – longitudinal provision for students across Years 10-13 in schools with little history of engagement with Oxford. By 2014-15 this has expanded to accommodate 500 Year 12 students attending study days and 1,800 Year 10 students attending a taster day. In the 2015-16 agreement there is reference to 3,000 participants.
  • The 2012-13 agreement also outlines a system of access flags attached to certain student applicants, denoting educational and social disadvantage. Some 500 applicants were flagged in 2009/10, 630 in 2010/11 and 928 in 2011/12. The intention is that flagged candidates will achieve the same success rate in receiving offers as all applicants from the same sector. (The sectors specified are comprehensive, grammar, FEC, 6FC and independent). A flag for students from low participation neighbourhoods is incorporated from 2011-12 and one for students from schools and colleges with historically low progression to Oxford is introduced in 2012-13. The 2014-15 agreement notes that the proportion of flagged students achieving an offer and subsequently admitted has risen from 15.6% in 2010-11 to 17.2% in 2011-12. The gap between the success rate of flagged applicants and all UK-domiciled applicants has also fallen from 6.4% to 5.6%. In the 2015-16 agreement, the offer rate for flagged candidates is reported as being 19.1% in 2012-13 and 21.9% in 2013-14 However, there is no comparison with the sector-specific data for all applicants.

The 2012-13 agreement is the first to mention the preparation of an Oxford Common Framework for Access but this is not ready until the publication of the 2014-15 agreement.

In that agreement, Oxford describes a four-fold approach it has developed for targeting different types of schools:

  • The large proportion producing few students with the necessary attainment to apply to Oxford – highly tailored individual activities such as UNIQ, school-cluster visits and the student union’s student shadowing scheme.
  • Schools with little history of sending students to Oxford or students who have been relatively unsuccessful – application and interview preparation workshops and awareness-raising events.
  • Schools where there are many high-attaining students but little history of sending students to Oxford – increase understanding of the application process and break down myths.
  • Schools who have significant numbers of successful applicants – maintain a working relationship.

Targets

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Cambridge

Cambridge begins by adopting selected HESA benchmarks, even though these have:

‘severe limitations in a Cambridge context, in that they take insufficient account of the University’s entry requirements, both in terms of subject combinations and of levels of qualification. We hope in due course to develop our own internally derived milestones or, alternatively, consider the applicability of any milestones which OFFA might develop.’

Three targets are adopted:

  • Increasing the proportion of UK undergraduates from state schools or colleges to between 60% and 63%, compared with a HESA benchmark for 2001-02 of 65%.
  • Increasing the proportion of students admitted whose parental occupation falls within NS-SEC 4-7 to 13-14%, compared with a HESA benchmark for 2001-02 of 13%.
  • Increasing the proportion of students from low participation neighbourhoods to approximately 8-9% compared with the HESA 2001-02 benchmark of 7%.

For 2010-12, the third of these targets is lowered to 5-6% because HESA has changed the basis of its calculation, reducing Cambridge’s benchmark by 33%.

By 2012-13, the first of these targets is described as the University’s ‘principal objective’, so it is deemed more important than improving fair access for disadvantaged students. This statement is subsequently removed, however.

The third objective is again recalibrated downwards, this time to 4%, because:

‘Currently HESA performance indicators and other national datasets relating to socio-economic background do not take adequate account of the entry requirements of individual institutions. Whilst they take some account of attainment, they do not do so in sufficient detail for highly selective institutions such as Cambridge where the average candidate admitted has 2.5 A* grades with specific subject entry requirements. For the present we have adjusted our HESA low participation neighbourhood benchmark in line with the results of our research in relation to state school entry and will use this as our five-year target….We will seek data through HESA or otherwise to amend or update our target in relation to socio-economic background in a revised access agreement next year.’

A paper is available explaining the recalibration (applying a scaling factor of 0.88)

Two new targets are also introduced: a retention benchmark and a process target relating to the minimum number of summer school places.  There will be a minimum of 600 places a year for the next five years.

The substantive details are unchanged in all subsequent agreements.

Oxford

In its 2006-07 access agreement, Oxford discusses setting a performance indicator for recruitment from the maintained sector, adding that from 2006 it will begin to collect data on recruitment from lower socio-economic groups.

In 2007-08 it notes that recruitment from SEG 4-7 ‘increased by 7% and drew the University closer to its benchmark’.

In 2008-09, Oxford is continuing to monitor participation by SEG 4-7 and planning to introduce an internally developed benchmark, adjusted to reflect the high attainment required for entry to Oxford. By 2009-10/2010-11, work is still ongoing to develop such a benchmark.

In 2011-12 it seems still not to be ready, but in 2012-13 Oxford introduces its current indicators:

  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduates at Oxford from schools and colleges which historically have had limited progression to Oxford.
  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduate students at Oxford from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. ACORN is adopted because:

‘The University has found the ACORN information to be the most accurate source of verifiable information to highlight socioeconomic factors that may signify disadvantage, and has used it as a contextual flag in the undergraduate admissions process since 2008-9, and also as a factor when selecting participants for the UNIQ summer schools programmes.’

  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduate students at Oxford from neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education. This utilises POLAR quintiles 1 and 2 ‘in line with HEFCE and OFFA recommendations’.
  • Meet the HEFCE benchmark on disabled students at Oxford.

It supplements these with three ‘activity targets and outcomes’:

  • 60% of those participating in the UNIQ summer schools make an application to Oxford, and 30% of those applying to receive an offer of a place.
  • Improve the participation, application, and success levels from schools and colleges who have had teachers attend the Regional Teacher Conferences, where these schools and college have either a limited numbers of qualified candidates or where there historically has been limited success in securing offers.
  • Using contextual information in the admissions process to identify candidates who may be suitable to be interviewed on the basis of either time in care, or socio-economic and educational disadvantage. The expectation is that identified candidates would then achieve the same success rate in receiving offers as all applicants to Oxford from equivalent school or college sectors.

These are unchanged in subsequent agreements though, as we have seen, there is no reporting of flagged applicants’ success compared with all students in their respective sectors, only compared with all applicants.

Commentary

There are, within the series of access agreements, valuable insights into the thinking within Oxford and Cambridge about such issues. Here is an annotated selection, presented in broadly chronological order:

  • Improvement will take time: ‘Cambridge will continue to strive to encourage applications from qualified applicants from groups currently under-represented and to admit a greater proportion of them within the context of our admissions policies and without compromising entry standards. Experience has, however, demonstrated that outreach activity takes time to alter the composition of the student population.’ (Cambridge, 2006-10)
  • Partnership and collaboration is necessary: ‘In setting itself these objectives, the University recognises that the problems relating to access to higher education are complex and deep-seated, and beyond the capability of the University to solve by itself. They require the input of all parts of the organisation to address, and indeed the input of agencies external to the University. Oxford is committed to playing its part in addressing these issues…’ (Oxford, 2008-09)
  • Increases in intake are unlikely: ‘Because, in part, of the full-time, residential nature of Cambridge’s undergraduate courses, it is unlikely that the university’s undergraduate intake will significantly increase over the next five years.’ (In 2012-13, this is qualified by the addition of the phrase ‘…beyond the colleges’ capacity to admit them’, but this is dropped again the following year.) (Cambridge 2006-10 and 2012-13)
  • Access is focused on application rather than admission: ‘The selection process aims to identify the most able, by subject, from among a very highly qualified field of candidates. While the purpose of our access work is to ensure that all students who are likely to be able to meet the required standards have the opportunity to apply, our admissions procedures aim to select those candidates who best meet our published selection criteria.’ (Oxford, 2012-13)
  • The balance of expenditure in favour of bursaries is justified: Whilst mindful of OFFA guidance on this subject, we do not believe that there is a sufficient body of evidence that greater benefit would be derived from different proportions of expenditure. As suggested above…we believe that our financial support has a significant bearing on retention. We have also taken full account of student feedback in the formulation of the present scheme. Students have confirmed during the current year that they do not want to see a reduction in bursary levels. It should be noted that the level of expenditure on outreach activity outlined in this agreement is supplemented from very substantial funding through other sources, and so we believe our commitment in this area to be considerable and appropriate.’ (Cambridge 2013-14)
  • This balance of expenditure in favour of bursaries is open to challenge: ‘Our package of financial support to undergraduate students, through both tuition charge waivers and maintenance bursaries, is expected to contribute in broad terms to meeting the targets and outcomes. As yet, however, the evidence for a demonstrable connection between financial support for students and improvements in access to higher education amongst under-represented groups is unclear. We will continue to review our position on the basis of further evidence and analysis.’ (Oxford, 2012-13)
  • Explanations of limited progress: Progress against these targets in 2012 has proved extremely challenging, particularly against the backdrop of the new funding regime combined with a demographic decline in the number of school leavers. In relation to the three targets dealing with educational, social and economic disadvantage, Oxford has seen both a decline in applicants and a decline in the number of students that have been admitted…Oxford will continue to focus its outreach efforts and resources on recruiting and encouraging a wider range of student to apply successfully to the University (Oxford 2014-15)
  • Student funding reforms have depressed performance: ‘The 2011, 2012 and 2013 entry cycles proved atypical, given the extensive changes to student funding, and this was reflected in the limited success against the targets…The provisional figures for 2014 entry, however, indicate that we have made headway across the board, particularly in regard to candidates who are from postcodes with high levels of socio-economic disadvantage using the Acorn (A Classification Of Residential Neighbourhoods) postcode classification. …Sustained long term outreach activity takes time to show in the admissions process, and the need to allow a five year period to assess progress has been reiterated by Oxford on a regular basis.’ (Oxford 2015-16)
  • Potentially negative impact of A level reform: ‘We are concerned that current proposals for A-level reform would significantly reduce student choice and flexibility; in particular, the lack of formal end of Year 12 examinations will adversely affect student confidence and the quality of the advice they receive about higher education options, and also prevent institutions such as Cambridge from accurately assessing current academic performance and trajectory. If effected these proposed reforms could have a significant bearing on our ability to make progress on access measures.’ (In 2015-16 there is also concern ‘…that proposed funding arrangements would effectively restrict students in many state schools to three A-levels, meaning that the opportunity to study extremely valuable fourth subjects such as Further Mathematics would be lost.) (Cambridge, 2014-15 and 2015-16 
  • There is an evidence base for effective practice ‘There is also increasing evidence that sustained work with students over a longer period of time is more effective than one-off interventions, particularly if this work is tailored to the requirements of each age group.’ and ‘Research into access activities has identified that, provided they have a sufficient depth of content, summer schools are a particularly valuable experience for students who have higher academic achievements and aspirations than others in their peer group.’ (Oxford 2014-15 and 2015-16)
  • Universities’ role in raising attainment: There is a larger question about the role of universities in raising attainment rates within schools. Universities can, and Oxford does, work in partnership with schools, local authorities, and third parties to form collaborative networks that can work together to raise the attainment rates of students from the most deprived backgrounds’ (Oxford 2014-15)

Some of these issues will be picked up again in the final section of this post.

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Oxbridge’s Signature Access Programmes

This section reviews information about key programmes within each university’s access portfolio that reflect their long-term commitment to residential programmes and a more recent focus on longer-term partnership programmes targeting secondary students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Before engaging with these specific programmes, it is important to give a sense of the full range of activity presently under way. In Oxford’s case, the most recent 2015-16 access agreement provides the basis for this. In Cambridge’s case, I have drawn on online material and an online brochure.

Cambridge’s Access Portfolio 

Cambridge’s Outreach and Access webpages provide details of:

  • Insight supporting students attracting the Pupil Premium in Year 9 through to Year 13 (see below)
  • Experience Cambridge, a 3-week subject-specific academic project, undertaken predominantly through the University’s VLE.
  • HE+, a pilot programme involving regional consortia of state schools and colleges working with their link Cambridge College to enable their academically able students to make competitive applications to selective universities including Cambridge.
  • HE Partnership, an aspiration-raising initiative targeting Year 9-11 students in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough schools with lower than average progression rates – and particularly students attending them with no family background of attending higher education.

A separate Raising Aspirations booklet mentions, in addition:

  • The Subject Matters, events for Year 11 students to support their A level subject choice
  • Year 12 subject masterclasses
  • A Black Asian and minority ethnicity (BAME) outreach programme
  • Further education and mature student outreach
  • Various examples of outreach by University Departments
  • Activity under the College Area Links Scheme
  • The CUSU Shadowing Scheme
  • Open Days
  • Oxford and Cambridge student conferences
  • Participation in higher education conventions

Oxford’s Access Portfolio

Oxford’s 2015-16 access agreement describes:

  • Briefings for Teach First and PGCE students which typically attract 150 students annually.
  • An annual programme of school and college visits, which involved over 3,300 UK schools and colleges in 2012-13. These are undertaken through Link Colleges (see below).
  • Target Schools, an OUSU programme involving undergraduate visits and student Shadowing Scheme.
  • A variety of Departmental and subject-specific outreach activities

Cambridge: Sutton Trust Summer Schools 

Sutton Trust summer schools are subject-specific residential courses for Year 12 students. They are currently provided at ten institutions including Cambridge. There are about 2,000 places nationally and Cambridge accounts for 550 of them.

Cambridge offers 26 five-day courses in July and August, hosted by six of its colleges. They are free to attend. The providers meet all costs including travel to and from the venue, food and accommodation.

Successful applicants must meet most or all of the following eligibility criteria:

  • In the first generation of their family to attend university (in fact this means neither parent has a first degree or equivalent)
  • Eligible for FSM [not pupil premium] during secondary education
  • Have achieved at least 5A*/A grades at GCSE or equivalent and be taking subjects relevant to the summer schools they wish to attend
  • Attend schools/colleges with a low overall A level point score (typically below the national average) and/or low progression to HE
  • Live in neighbourhoods with low progression rates to HE and/or high rates of socio-economic deprivation.

Participants must attend a UK state-funded school or college, so those attending independent schools are ineligible, even if they have moved subsequently into a state sixth form. Priority is given to children who are, or were formerly, looked after or in care.

Cambridge’s website says:

‘We look at a combination of the contextual priority criteria met and GCSE grades (or equivalent) in subjects relevant to the course for which you have applied. In 2014, the majority of our 550 summer school participants met two or more of these criteria.’

In answer to the question ‘does attending a summer school increase my chances of getting a place at Cambridge, the University says:

‘Applications to the University are completely separate from the Summer Schools and use different criteria to those of the Summer School.  Admissions Tutors will not know whether an applicant has attended a Summer School, unless you choose to mention it in your personal statement…Equally, being unsuccessful in a summer school application does not correlate to the likelihood of being accepted to Cambridge as an undergraduate: we use very different criteria and it is in no way a statement about your academic record or potential.’

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Oxford: UNIQ summer schools

The UNIQ summer schools website describes a very similar animal. It is also targeted at Year 12 students in state schools and colleges. The courses are also one-week, subject-specific residential experiences undertaken during July and August. All costs are covered.

According to the access agreements Oxford planned to increase the number of places available to 1,000 in 2014 and achievement of this outcome is confirmed in the published statistics, which add that there were 4,327 applications and that 507 ‘near miss applicants’ were invited to undertake other outreach activities.

Interestingly though, the number of places available in 2015 fell back substantially, to 850. The number of courses was 35, unchanged from 2014, suggesting a drop in the average number of students per course from 29 to 24.

Courses are categorised according to whether they are in Humanities, Medical Sciences, Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences or Social Sciences. Sixteen of the 35 are in Humanities subjects.

The eligibility criteria are also similar to those for Sutton trust summer schools, but  those relating to disadvantage are not described with any degree of specificity . They include:

  • The number of A* GCSE grades achieved compared with the average for the applicant’s school when they took GCSEs. (Applicants are only permitted to have completed one A level.)
  • Academic attainment and history of progression to Oxford at the school or college where the applicant is taking A levels
  • ACORN postcode data
  • POLAR 3 data and
  • The quality of a personal statement

Applications from looked after children are considered ‘on an individual basis’.

A referee, normally a teacher, needs to confirm the details of their application.

Students who complete a UNIQ summer school fulfil the requirements for the ASDAN Universities Award.

The website adds that from 2015, Oxford is ‘running a virtual learning programme for selected applicants’.

The answer given to the question ‘Will attending a UNIQ summer school make it more likely that I will get a place at Oxford University says:

‘Students who attend UNIQ and decide to apply to Oxford University do not receive any preferential treatment at the application stage.

Admissions tutors who make decisions about undergraduate offers select entirely on academic merit. Unless students mention on their UCAS Personal Statement that they have attended the UNIQ Summer School, admissions tutors will not know, as we do not provide them with separate information.’

Cambridge: Insight 

Insight is described in the guide for teachers as:

‘an [sic] multidisciplinary programme which aims develop [sic] and broaden students’ academic interests and tackle the barriers many students face when applying to university. We hope to achieve this through inspiring subject days, discussions with current university students and academics and sessions about university.’

Eligible students are in Year 9, attract the Pupil Premium, can travel to and from Cambridge in a day and are ‘on track to achieve Level 7 English, maths and science but [sic] the end of Key Stage 3’.

The programme is predominantly focused on six London boroughs, but applications are also invited from non-selective state schools elsewhere with ‘above average eligibility for free school meals’.

There is a series of Saturday and holiday events, including:

  • Core sessions, including an introductory event in the Spring term of Year 9 and ‘Subject Matters’ – events to support A level choices – in the Autumn Term of Year 11.
  • Additional subject days provided throughout Years 10 and 11
  • A one-night residential at the end of Year 10 and a four-night residential at the end of Year 11 for ‘those who have shown enthusiasm and commitment to the programme’.
  • A regular email newsletter during Years 12 and 13 providing information about open days, masterclasses, residentials and competitions.

The programme is free of charge.

I could find no evaluation of the impact of this programme, which is not mentioned in Cambridge’s ‘Raising Aspirations’ brochure, even though it seems to be their only substantial long term programme targeting disadvantaged students outside the local area

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Oxford: Pathways Programme 

The website describes Pathways as an initiative co-ordinated by Oxford’s colleges with support from the Sutton Trust.

‘The programme aims to provide information, advice and guidance on higher education and Oxford to academically able students, and staff members, in non-selective state schools with little history of student progression to Oxford.’

The components are:

  • Year 10 taster days which provide sessions on higher education and student finance. Applications are made by schools, which need to be in the state sector, ‘usually without sixth forms’ and with little or any history of sending students to Oxford.
  • Year 11 investigating options events, focused on the significance of GCSE results and post-16 choices. These are aimed at students who have undertaken a taster event who attend schools fitting the description above. Schools are encouraged to bring up to ten students. There are also two subject-focused days, one devoted to Medicine, the other to Humanities.
  • Year 12 study days providing a taste of subject-specific university-level study. This involves two taster sessions undertaken in small groups, two talks from admissions tutors and a college tour. There are twenty-one subjects offered. Participants are from non-selective state schools and colleges. They are normally expected to have at least 5 GCSE A* grades (7 for medicine) and be predicted to achieve at least 3 A grades at A level, or equivalent.
  • A Year 13 application information day, providing advice on personal statements, tests and interviews. These cover seven broad subject areas. Participants are again drawn from non-selective state schools and colleges.

Although not confined to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, teachers are advised that:

‘When selecting participants for the Year 12 and 13 events, we also take into account socio-economic data, such as parental HE participation and eligibility for benefits or free schools meals.’

The Sutton Trust explains that Pathways involved almost 3,000 students and 400 teachers in its first year. The Trust is funding the further development of the Year 12 and 13 components.

I could find no separate evaluation of the effectiveness of Pathways.

Strengths and weaknesses of Oxbridge provision

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Summer schools 

Both Oxford and Cambridge place extensive reliance on the effectiveness of summer schools as an instrument for improving access, with summer school provision forming the centrepiece of their respective strategies.

The evidence base in support of this strategy appears relatively slim. Both appear to be relying principally on evaluation of the Sutton Trust’s programme.

The Sutton Trust appears to publish an annual Targeting and Progression Report, but the 2014 edition has all the institution-specific data stripped out, which is not entirely helpful.

However, it does reveal that, amongst applicants for summer schools in all ten locations, only:

  • 59.5% were from the first generation of their family with experience of HE.
  • 54.8% came from schools and colleges with below average A level point scores and/or low progression rates to HE.
  • 29.9% were in Polar 2 quintiles 1 or 2.

There is no reference to the FSM eligibility criterion, so presumably that was not in place last year.

There is limited information about the status of those accepted onto courses. Between them, the document and a parallel powerpoint presentation tell us that:

  • The majority of attendees met two or three of the eligibility criteria
  • 77% met three of the criteria, but we don’t know which three
  • 85% met the ‘first generation’ criterion
  • 74% ‘came from schools with low attainment’
  • 49% ‘lived in areas with the lowest level of progression to university’ (presumably Polar quintiles 1 and 2).

Given the focus of this post, the last outcome is particularly disappointing, since it means that over half were not disadvantaged on the Trust’s only measure. Perhaps the additional FSM criterion has been introduced in an effort to secure a larger majority of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The presentation also reveals that the Trust specifically targeted 900 ‘hard to reach schools’ which eventually supplied 257 attendees, 88% of them meeting three or more of the eligibility criteria.

The implication must be that, if such an exercise had not taken place, the proportion of attendees from disadvantaged backgrounds would have been significantly lower.

The Report also reveals that, of the 2012 Sutton Trust summer school cohort, 58% of university applicants took up a place at a Russell Group university. A total of 125 students (10% of the cohort) accepted a place at the institution that hosted their summer school.

Oxford publishes information about its summer schools in its access agreements.

The target is for 60% of participants to apply and for 30% of applicants to receive an offer. The University also aims that summer school participants will have the same success rate in securing an offer as the average for all applicants from the state sector.

Each agreement provides detail about the number of participants who apply to Oxford, the number receiving offers and the proportion of those from ACORN groups 4 and 5.

These are summarised in Graph 4, below, which illustrates that the impact on recruitment of students from ACORN 4 and 5 postcodes is not fully commensurate with the increase in the number of participants.

Oxbridge graph 3

Graph 4: Impact of UNIQ summer schools, 2010-2013

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Oxford also provides details of the proportion of summer school participants from Polar quintiles 1 and 2 receiving an admission offer, for 2011 (19.5%), 2012 (15%) and 2013 (20.3%). In 2013, the comparable ‘success rate’ for all applicants to the University was 20.1%.

The evaluation evidence cited by Oxbridge is captured in a Sutton Trust Summer School Impact Report, dating from 2011. This is based on analysis of the 2008 and 2009 summer school intakes, when course were located at Bristol, Nottingham and St Andrews, as well as at Oxford and Cambridge.

It concludes that:

  • Summer schools successfully select students who fit the eligibility criteria (though that is not entirely borne out by the more recent outcomes above).
  • Amongst the disadvantaged cohort, less disadvantaged students are more likely to take up places than their more disadvantaged peers.
  • However, attending a summer school closes the gap between the success rates – in terms of obtaining admission offers – of more and less disadvantaged students. Exactly why this happens is unclear.
  • There are significant differences between universities. Cambridge exhibits ‘relatively poor conversion of attendees into applications (not least when compared to the equivalent performance of Oxford)’

The overall conclusion is that summer schools do have a positive impact, compared with control groups, but the study does not offer recommendations for how they might work better, or consider value for money.

The closing section notes that:

‘They achieve this by raising two of the three ‘As’ of the WP canon – student awareness and student aspirations. It may not directly enhance the third – student attainment – though summer schools can support students’ study skills – but the growing adoption of a ‘contextual data’ approach to the treatment of university admissions should be to the further benefit of the sorts of students who pass through summer schools.’

Overall then, summer schools have a positive impact, but if we are judging their efficiency as a mechanism for improving the intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is clear that there is extensive deadweight. They might be better targeted on the most disadvantaged students.

If this is true of summer schools it is almost certainly true of other elements of Oxbridges’s access programmes.

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Other more general issues 

  • A smorgasbord of provision: It is evident that both Oxford and Cambridge are engaged in multiple overlapping initiatives designed to improve access, both to their own institutions and to selective HE more generally. At Offa’s behest, they are targeting several sub-populations. The 2016-17 guidance on completing access agreements invites them to consider a variety of under-represented groups: minority ethnic students, disabled students, care leavers and students in care, part-time students, mature students, medical students, PGCE students. There seems to be a tendency to invent a series of small targeted initiatives for each subgroup, rather than focusing principally on two or three substantial programmes that would make a real difference to core target groups. 
  • Too many priorities too vaguely expressed: Both universities identify core priorities through the targets they have selected. In Oxford’s case those involve increasing representation from: schools and colleges with limited progression to Oxford; postcodes associated with significant socio-economic disadvantage; postcodes associated with low HE participation; and disabled students. However the first three overlap to some extent and recent access agreements do not indicate the relative priority attached to each. In Cambridge’s case only two targets relate to admissions, one focused on increasing representation from state schools, the other from low participation postcodes. In older agreements, the former has clear priority over the latter but it is unclear whether this remains the case. Offa’s framework requires simplification so that both universities have no option but to prioritise admissions from disadvantaged learners educated in state-funded institutions. It should be much clearer exactly which activities are dedicated to this end and what funding is allocated for this purpose. 
  • A plethora of measures: The Offa system permits Oxbridge and other universities too much leeway in defining the populations whose access they seek to promote and in determining how they measure success. This makes it harder to compare universities’ records and more complex to harmonise with the measures most often applied in schools and colleges. If universities refuse to foreground eligibility for the pupil premium and for FSM, they should at the very least publish annual data about the proportion of their intake falling within these categories, and without the present two year time lag.
  • Limited transparency: There is too much variability in the degree of transparency permitted by the Offa framework. Oxford provides much more data in its access agreement than does Cambridge, but the range of data published in support of fair access is limited across the board. Within the bounds of data protection legislation, it should be possible for the university to state each year, without a two-year timelag, what proportion of their intake fall within certain specified categories, how those vary between subjects and the range of attainment demonstrated in each case. The publication of such material would go a long way towards removing any sense that Oxbridge is overly defensive about these issues. 
  • Limited investment in long term collaborative programmes: Summer schools are valuable but they do not impact early enough, nor do they raise attainment. The Insight and Pathways programmes demonstrate growing recognition of the potential value of establishing long-term relationships with prospective students that begin as early as primary school and certainly before the end of KS3. Such programmes require schools, colleges and universities to preserve continuity for each eligible student through to the point of university entry. Existing programmes are insufficiently intensive and reach too few students. Scalability is an obvious issue. 
  • Negligible involvement in attainment-raising work: Both Oxford and Cambridge state frequently that the principal obstacle to recruiting more disadvantaged students is the scarcity of sufficiently high attainment within the target group. Yet rarely, if ever, do they invest in long-term activities designed to raise these students’ attainment, seeming to believe that this is entirely a matter for schools and colleges. The precedent offered by university involvement in academy sponsorship and A level reform would suggest that there is no fundamental obstacle to much closer engagement in such activities.

.

Tackling the core problem

The proposed solution is a framework that supports a coherent long-term programme for all high-attaining disadvantaged students attending state-funded institutions in England, stretching from Year 7 to Year 13. These might be defined as all those eligible for pupil premium. An additional high attainment criterion, based on achievement in end of KS2 tests, could be introduced if necessary.

Such a programme could be extended to the other home countries and additional populations subject to the availability of funding.

The framework would position the school/college as the co-ordinator, facilitator and quality assurer of each eligible student’s learning experience (with handover as appropriate as and when a learner transfers school or into a post-16 setting).

It would stretch across the full range of competence required for admission to selective HE, including high attainment, personal and learning skills, strong yet realistic aspirations, cultural capital, access to tailored IAG etc.

On the demand side, the framework would be used to identify each student’s strengths and areas for development, and monitor progress again challenging but realistic personal targets.

From Years 7-9 the programme would be light-touch and open access for all eligible disadvantaged students. Emphasis would be placed on awareness-raising and the initial cultivation of relevant skills.

Entry to the programme from Year 10 would be conditional on the achievement of an appropriate nigh attainment threshold at the end of KS3. From this point, provision would be tailored to the individual and more intensive.

Continuation in subsequent years would be dependent on the student achieving appropriate high attainment thresholds and challenging interim targets.

Schools’ and colleges’ performance would be monitored through destinations data and Ofsted inspection.

On the supply side the framework would be used to identify, organise and catalogue all opportunities to develop the full range of competence required for admission to selective HE, whether provided by the student’s own school or college, other education providers in the school, college and HE sectors or reputable private and third sector providers.

Opportunities offered by external providers, whether at national or regional level, would be catalogued and mapped against the framework in a searchable national database. Schools and colleges would be responsible for mapping their own provision and other local provision against the framework.

Each student would have a personal budget supplied from a central fund. Personal budgets would be administered by the school/college and used to purchase suitable learning opportunities with a cost attached. The fund would be fed by an annual £50m topslice from the pupil premium. This would cover the full cost of personal budgets.

The annual budget of £50m per year might be divided between:

  • Light-touch open access activities in Years 7-9 – £10m
  • Intensive programme in Years 10-13 – £10m per year group.

The latter would be sufficient to support 5,000 eligible students to the tune of £2,000 per student per year, or 4,000 to the tune of £2,500.

By comparison, DfE’s destination indicators suggest that, in 2012/13, ‘top third’ universities admitted 2,650 FSM-eligible students; some 1,520 of these were admitted to Russell Group universities and, of those, just 50 were admitted to Oxbridge.

Selective universities would make a small contribution, the sum adjusted to reflect their comparative performance against fair access targets. These contributions would be used to meet the administrative costs associated with the programme. Total annual running costs have not been estimated but are unlikely to be more than £2.5m per year.

Universities might choose to invest additional funding, covered by their annual Offa access agreements, in developing free-to-access products and services that sit within the supply side of the framework. Attainment-raising activities might be a particular priority, especially for Oxbridge.

Philanthropic contributions might also be channelled towards filling gaps in the supply of products and services where, for whatever reason, the market failed to respond.

Selective universities would have access to information about the progress and performance of participating students. Students would apply for higher education via UCAS as normal, but strong performers would expect to receive unconditional offers from their preferred universities, on the strength of their achievement within the programme to date.

Participation in the programme would be a condition of funding for all selective universities. All processes and outcomes would be transparent, unless data protection legislation prevented this. The programme would be independently evaluated.

Optionally, universities might be further incentivised to make unconditional offers and provide the necessary support during undergraduate study. The Government might pay the receiving university a fee supplement, 50% above the going rate, for every student on the programme admitted unconditionally (so up to £22.5m per cohort per year assuming a supplement of £4,500 and 100% recruitment). This supplement would not be provided for conditional offers.

The Government would also claw back the full fee plus the supplement for every student on the programme – whether admitted conditionally or unconditionally – who failed to graduate with a good degree (so £40,500 per student assuming a 3-year degree and a £9,000 fee).

GP

March 2015

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4 thoughts on “How strong is Oxbridge access?

  1. This is a purely personal response from the perpective of a comprehensive school teacher and parent of comprehensive school educated children. As far as Oxbridge is concerned I think that the admissions system could be made much less complex for students that do not have a lot of help from family or school when applying. Make it simpler and less risky for students to apply and maybe more good quality students would do so. These are my, probably unrealistic, suggestions.
    Have all UCAS applications due in on the same day. 15th Oct is too early. It is too easy for pupils not to apply when the deadline is so close to the start of the school year and different to many other excellent universities.
    Allow students to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge and maybe have more than four or five choices – pupils might be more willing to take a risk if they had more chances to succeed.
    Either streamline the college application choice with all the information on one website, or don’t make students choose a college until later. The many websites take hours to trawl through and each college has it’s own admissions criteria. It is easy to make an uninformed or unrealistic choice and reduce your chances of an offer or be put off altogether. Many Independent schools have strong links with particular colleges and I think this increases the chances of those students getting offers to the detriment of others. It would be good to cut those ties.
    Be very careful when making assumptions based on personal statements or interviews….
    Above all, allocate places after A level results come out. Oxford, in particular, puts a great deal of emphasis on A* at GCSE. This is problematic for many pupils from schools where these results are unusual, but who may excel at A level.
    From my limited experience, some of the measures outlined in your article can actually have the opposite effect from that intended. Teenagers generally want to fit in and can easily be put off applying if they don’t feel that they belong. One thoughtless remark from university staff or a current student is sometimes sufficient and can undo much well intentioned work by schools and universities.

  2. Thanks for your comments. I agree with you about some of the practicalities of admission to Oxford and Cambridge.

    From the applicant’s perspective it would be much easier if every university operated to the same deadline, but Oxbridge argue that their particularly intensive admissions processes prevent this.

    It would also be so much more sensible to admit on the basis of A level outcomes, but the history of attempts to shift the school, university and exam timetables to permit this is not encouraging.

    There have been suggestions that the rule preventing simultaneous application to Oxford and Cambridge might fall foul of competition law, but Oxbridge argues that this would extend the time they need to select candidates.

    One purpose of my proposals for disadvantaged students is to ensure that they all get access to high quality support when applying to university, including Oxbridge. Some of that support will come from the universities themselves. Another aim is to encourage universities to consider students’ wider achievement from Y10 onwards, and to recognise this through the reintroduction of unconditional offers.

    Such a scheme would not be for everyone, but I do think it would be a better way to challenge students’ myths about admission, while also helping universities to present themselves more positively to disadvantaged young people and their schools. If universities like Oxbridge had a personal stake in disadvantaged students’ achievement from 15 upwards – in a manner that is scalable nationally – the playing field might perhaps seem a little more level?

    GP

  3. Unconditional offers and a long term relationship may well pay dividends. But I think that until Oxbridge behave more like other universities they will struggle to recuit disadvantaged students in the same numbers as other Russell Group institutions. Claiming that they are a special case is not a good enough excuse for their reluctance to embrace change. Surely the power of all those brilliant minds should be able to find solutions if they really wanted…..

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