Do low-income students belong at Oxford? Of course they do

When I headed an Oxford college we launched an experiment to open the university up to the best students, regardless of background. The results speak for themselves

August 11, 2023
Socially engineered? The University of Oxford. Image: Paul Thompson Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Socially engineered? The University of Oxford. Image: Paul Thompson Images / Alamy Stock Photo

What’s a university education for—and who deserves to get one? Are lecturers right to strike? Should humanities subjects be defunded, or even abolished? Should so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees be scrapped? Are student loans a rip-off? Do private schools give an unfair advantage, or is there a stigma attached to perceived privilege?

As we approach A-level results week and teenagers face a fierce scramble to move up the next rung, I can’t remember a time when so many searching questions were being asked about higher education in the UK, and with so few clear answers. For me, having recently spent six years at one of our most elite universities, the University of Oxford, the first two questions are still the most fascinating: what’s it for, and who gets it? 

Oxford is regularly ranked the best university in the world, so it is clearly doing a lot right—and has done for more than 800 years. When I arrived to head one of its colleges, Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), in 2015, there was nonetheless much soul-searching by many colleagues across Oxford about whether the admissions procedures were as fair as they could be.

Common sense told you—and a sheaf of academic research supported the notion—that kids from low-income backgrounds had a mountain to climb to get into Oxford compared with kids from better-off backgrounds. Did that matter? Some academics appeared genuinely stumped by that question. 

Very long story short: we started a Foundation Year at the college, based on a similar course at Trinity College Dublin (TCD). The idea was that we would take young people who had benefited from no leg-up in life—quite the opposite—and give them an extra year to catch up. TCD data over nearly 20 years suggested that the idea worked: at the end of their courses the students graduated with, on average, 2:1 degrees. 

Many tutors at Oxford jumped at the idea. This, at last, seemed like one answer to the problem that had so vexed them. One fellow college head had warned me of the problem of “Marlborough Man”—shorthand for the potential threat of a legal challenge from the parent of a private school pupil who had missed out on a place due to something that looked like positive discrimination. But these were additional places: no one was initially losing out. And generous alumni from modest backgrounds who knew what an Oxford education could do for their lives were only too willing to fund it.

Some academics in the wider university wanted nothing to do with the scheme. “Social engineering”, they called it, apparently unaware of how socially engineered so much secondary English education is. “We can’t teach them,” said one. “They wouldn’t fit in,” said another. “Oxford doesn’t do remedial education.” And so on. 

A week ago, Jake, one of the early intake for Foundation Year students, posted good news on his LinkedIn account: “From being called ‘incompetent’ in one of my first classes, to leaving with a First Class degree,” he wrote.  

“Prior to coming to Oxford, I came from a small ex-mining village in the northeast of England and attended a school that was named one of the worst 100 schools for academic performance in the UK for both my GCSEs and A-levels. At the time of my interview for Oxford, I was working full-time, living away from home and self-teaching A-level content as the school no longer offered teaching in 2/3 A-levels.”

Here he now was, graduating with a first and about to embark on a PhD in Cambridge on childhood neurodegenerative diseases. 

Nor was Jake untypical of the first cohorts who graduated—most of them, as at TCD, with 2:1 degrees. Three are doing PhDs. There are software engineers, lawyers, teachers, consultants and city traders. One (with a degree from Harvard to match her Oxford one) is an international education activist working for the UN. Another has just been elected president of the Oxford Student Union

What some lacked in conventional social polish or confidence, they more than made up for in resilience and life experiences. They began to make the college look and feel different. We also discovered from access to their personal data that some of the metrics used by some universities to measure disadvantage were woefully inadequate. All that’s beginning to change. 

From little acorns, etc. Both Oxford and Cambridge have now started their own versions of the LMH and TCD foundation years, with nearly 90 students in all. A new experiment is beginning in how to make the most elite universities open to the best students regardless of their start in life; and to those with most potential. 

But, of course, those are words freighted with questions: “best” at what? How do you measure “potential”? 

And what about those Oxford academics who sincerely believed that these students didn’t deserve to be rubbing shoulders with those from more conventional backgrounds? “We don’t do hard luck stories at Oxford,” sniffed one STEM academic (not at LMH) on being told why our own tutors fervently believed that one particular student, with less-than-outstanding grades but with an astonishing backstory of courage, determination and self-tuition, really deserved a chance. 

It was a sentence that brought me up short. I failed my eleven plus but—with father a civil servant and mother a nurse—just scraped a place at Cambridge. I graduated with a 2:1, but—hand on heart—I really didn’t deserve an Oxbridge place nearly as much as most of the Foundation Year kids with the “hard luck stories.” Worse still, I studied English, now dismissed as a “dead-end subject” with little utility. 

So, amid all the questions about higher education currently competing for headlines, I still think the biggest questions—why, and for whom?—are the most important. And I will always watch with the greatest possible interest to see what Jake and the 60-odd LMH Foundation Year students so far do next. 

Some, I have no doubt, are bound for forms of greatness. You watch.