Oxford entry more transparent, says outgoing admissions head

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

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image captionMike Nicholson has been running Oxford's admissions for eight years

Hundreds of thousands of young people are getting ready to start university.

They will have negotiated the admissions process - exam grades, interviews and finding the right words of persuasion for their personal statements.

But there is no admissions system more intensely scrutinised than at Oxford University. It's a symbolic gateway. It's seen not just as an academic entry process but a barometer of social inclusiveness.

Four out of five applicants get turned down - but are they being turned down for the right reasons?

Mike Nicholson, the man who has been in the hot seat as Oxford's director of undergraduate admissions, is stepping down after eight years.

He has had the balancing act of encouraging the highest-achieving youngsters to apply while countering the stereotypes of social privilege.

If he is a gatekeeper of a bastion of privilege, he's a very genial figure.


And Mr Nicholson has empathy with those approaching with some hesitation, as he says he arrived at Oxford expecting a "hostile environment".

As a student he hadn't applied to Oxford and had mostly worked in universities outside the Russell Group of research-intensive universities - but the university had wanted him as an outsider to "take a long hard look" at its admissions.

image captionAdmissions to the University of Oxford have become a symbol of social mobility

"When I arrived the only real debate was about state versus private," he says.

The big topic was still Laura Spence, the state school girl from the north-east of England who had 10 A*s in her GCSEs and had been turned away from Oxford - eventually studying in Harvard instead.

This had provoked the wrath of Gordon Brown, then chancellor, and Mr Nicholson says it had come to be seen as a "touchstone for why Oxford isn't meritocratic".

His challenge was to get "behind the headlines" and to develop a much more detailed understanding of what fair access means in university admissions.

"It is really complex," says Mr Nicholson, who is moving on to run admissions at Bath University.

Within the 58% of last year's Oxford entry who were "state school" pupils, there is a mix of privileged and disadvantaged youngsters, from high and low-achieving schools, grammars, academies and comprehensives.

Greatest need?

Even wanting to attract more low-income students, he says, is not always straightforward.

Among applicants from deprived families, about a third have been to private school, presumably with a scholarship. Does this make them disadvantaged because of their family income, or privileged because of their private education?

image captionLaura Spence became a high-profile story when she was turned down by Oxford

With schools in London outperforming the rest of the country, does this mean that region should be taken into account? The most recent figures show there were about 60 pupils accepted from the north-east of England compared with more than 660 from London.

Should deprivation be judged by where pupils live or where they go to school, which could be in another higher-achieving local authority? Or should it be the type of institution. Fewer than 2% of entrants went to a further education college.

Looking back, Mr Nicholson says much of the focus was on poorer applicants, but more might have been done to recruit from among ethnic minority students.

The university has made big efforts to have this debate in the open, providing vast amounts of data about its admissions process and putting information such as interview questions into the public domain.

But it's as much a moral maze as an administration process.

Outreach work

The admissions system looks at those youngsters who apply, but the other side of the question is those clever youngsters who don't even consider it. The number of applications to Oxford is less than 40% of the number getting AAA* grades.

The outreach work with state schools has become much more professional, says Mr Nicholson.

This includes a recognition that there is little impact from one-off visits or events. It's not realistic to think that teenagers will "just come along and feel inspired and everything falls into place".

Instead there is an emphasis on sustained links with schools and pupils, better use of tracking data, making contact before sixth form and more intensive introductions such as summer schools.

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image captionIndependent schools have a disproportionate number of top A-level grades

Since Mr Nicholson arrived, annual applications have risen from 13,000 to 17,500.

But this is controversial territory.

Just as the university is attacked for elitism, it also faces complaints that its efforts to encourage applications from poorer youngsters create an unfair bias against talented independent school pupils.

So how does social background - so-called "contextualised information" - get taken into account in the admissions process?

"All the candidates who apply go through the same processes, such as aptitude tests, they will have their applications reviewed by a number of tutors, they may have to produce coursework. The tutors will then have a shortlist of interviewees," says Mr Nicholson.

"If we see that there's a candidate who has had a lot of challenges, we will bring them in addition to those shortlisted for interview.

"No-one loses out."

From the 2013 admission figures, about 190 of these students flagged up as being disadvantaged eventually got a place, with a success rate of about one in six applicants, lower than the average.


But how is such disadvantage defined?

The two key factors are the applicant's home postcode and the academic profile of their school. Eligibility for free school meals is not taken into account, as Mr Nicholson says it is not seen as a reliable measure.

image captionDisadvantage is identified by home postcode and exam results at the school

"If you are the only person in your school, or even the only person in your town, who might be making an application to Oxford, it's a difficult and challenging thing," he says.

In contrast, there is a great deal of self-confidence to be gained from being in a school that has a regular conveyor belt into Oxbridge.

When it gets to the interview, Mr Nicholson says tutors are very experienced at distinguishing between carefully coached "polish" and genuine ability. About two in five of those who reach an interview are offered a place.

Angry parents

But should university admissions be about fairness or should it just be about picking from the most able?

Mr Nicholson says it is about trying to get students with the most potential in the most transparent way.

And the distribution of top A-level grades will mean that independent school pupils will continue to be over-represented. In independent schools, 51% of A-level entries gained an A* or A grade, compared with a national average of 26%. It means that Oxford's intake will reflect this.

There could also be an element of tactics. State school pupils are more likely to apply for a small number of mainstream, oversubscribed subjects. Only 18% of applicants for maths get a place, 20% for English - but for those applying for classics, there is a 40% chance.

It's hard getting turned down. Mr Nicholson says it is parents, rather than their children, who find it most difficult to accept the rejection - and every year some of them get in touch to complain.

There can also be unsubtle attempts to lobby: "I had a Christmas card from the president of a country suggesting this particular student was a worthy chap."

He says there are no backdoors, no private deals and no single person can make the decision to admit a student.

There are people who want to "perpetuate that idea that it's exclusive, that there's a trick or technique that allows you to get in," but he says that perception is "totally at odds with my experience".

"What we've done is open up the opportunity for more people to apply who in the past might have thought it wasn't for them."