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14 August 2021

Update on Oxford University

Tag(s): Education, Current Affairs
This year marks the 50th anniversary of my graduation from Oxford University with a degree in Jurisprudence, what the rest of the world calls Law. Coincidentally I recently received, as did all the Alumni, a very upbeat letter from Professor Louise Richardson, the Vice Chancellor of the University. In it she says that over the past year they have adapted, innovated and collaborated at a surprising pace. Throughout the pandemic they have done what they do best; pushing the frontiers of knowledge, teaching the next generation, and improving the world around us. They have also come together as a community looking out for one another and for their students. Many alumni have stepped in to support the University and their students during this challenging time.

They remain at the cutting edge of Covid-19 research. They recently passed a major milestone when AstraZeneca announced that they had released one billion doses of the Oxford vaccine. The vaccine, developed in Oxford, is now being manufactured in 20 countries and distributed in 170 countries around the world. Crucially, it is providing the lion’s share of vaccines for low and middle-income countries that are desperately behind in vaccinating their populations. Not only is Oxford University central in the development of the vaccine but it also has been working on the recovery side. The RECOVERY trial is saving lives every day through the discovery of effective therapeutics for those infected with the virus. They were all delighted to see so many of their colleagues working in these teams recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June. (See my blog Oxford University Academics Honoured.)[i]

The University’s enduring global reputation, cutting-edge research and unique teaching environment have also helped them to retain first place in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings for a fifth consecutive year, as well as number one in the country, in the Guardian University Guide. The THE ranking emphasises research and global connections, the Guardian focuses on teaching and career prospects for students. That they have prevailed simultaneously in both is a remarkable achievement, a testament to the calibre of the people who work and study there. Finally, the Good Universities Guide named them “University of the Year 2021” due to their work on the vaccine and their success in broadening access to the University, demonstrating that they have not allowed the pandemic to distract them from their commitment to recruiting the very best and brightest students irrespective of their background.

While rankings may be gratifying, it is funding that drives their research. For the fifth consecutive year Oxford has the highest research income of any British university, £634 million, over £50 million more than their closest competitor (no prizes for guessing which that is.) They also attracted the most income from UK and EU government sources as well as UK and EU industry.

They also have many extraordinarily generous philanthropic supporters. In January they announced a £100 million gift from INEOS to support research on antimicrobial resistance, one of the greatest challenges to global health. The work on the Schwartzman Centre for the Humanities continued throughout the lockdowns as the entire city eagerly awaits the new performing arts centre.

Work on their 39th college, Reuben College, has also continued throughout the year with the first cohort of students arriving in October[ii]. Looking ahead, they have announced their intention to create a new Pandemic Sciences Centre to build on their success in developing vaccines and therapeutics and bring together leading academics from across the disciplines and across the world to work together to ensure that we are never again caught unprepared for a pandemic.

Finally, she notes that it has been heartening to see the city open up and gradually return to life. Looking out from the Clarendon building to Broad Street, where cars have been replaced by benches and plants, it is impossible not to think of the positive changes this pandemic has brought.

A reference to the naming of Oxford as University of the year, not only due to the work in the vaccine but also the success in broadening access to the University is of particular interest as the subject has become and remains highly controversial and is over-politicised and very badly covered in the media. There has been growing anger about inequality, rising applications from an improved state sector and the flood of international students and this has prompted both Oxford and Cambridge to rethink. They now give more credit to students who have overcome barriers on their way to top grades. And this means that fewer middling private school students would be driven to excel at interviews getting in. Dr Samina Khan, Oxford’s director of admissions, says “We want to select the academically most able – the really strong candidates versus those that are average but have been well prepared.” At Eton, attended by 20 UK prime ministers including the current one, the number of Oxbridge offers dropped from 99 in 2014 to just 48 this year. At King’s College, Wimbledon, offers have fallen by nearly half in two years to 27. Both schools still sit near the top of the national league tables of total offers. But their students are finding it harder to get in despite the fact that parents may pay up to £28,000 a year for day school or £44,000 for boarding.

But these fees should not be intended as some kind of guarantee of entry into Oxford or Cambridge Universities. Such private schools undoubtedly provide a much more rounded education experience including a wider curriculum and a much greater range of extracurricular activities with emphasis on music, drama and sport that is sadly lacking in many state schools. Dr Sam Lucy, an archaeologist who specialises in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain, has served as an admissions tutor at Cambridge since 2009. Now director of admissions, Lucy has been asked so many times why smart students are getting turned down that she carries a chart that illustrates what has changed. Since 1981, annual applications to Cambridge have risen from just under 5,000 to 20,426 last year. A number of highly selective state sixth forms have emerged partly to prepare children from disadvantaged backgrounds for Oxbridge and other top universities. They not only produce students with high exam scores and impressive essays, but also train them for interviews, an area where private schools have long excelled.

Historically the famous British private schools were established in the late Middle Ages or early Tudor period to provide free schooling to gifted boys from poorer backgrounds. My own school, Manchester Grammar School, was founded in 1515 on exactly that premise. It remained true for much of its history and it was only when the Labour government started its attack on grammar schools that social mobility which had been prevalent for centuries went into reverse. In my cohort of 210 boys back in 1968 no less than 78 won places at either Oxford or Cambridge University. But that was when we were a direct grant grammar school and many of us had scholarships paid for by the school based on government grants, or by local authorities, in my case the latter. When the direct grant was taken away the school became feepaying and therefore, yes, more elitist but actually this year it has won less than one third of the number of places at Oxford and Cambridge compared with my time there.

But another factor that has changed is that back in 1968 only about 20% of the students at Oxford were female. Today over half are,so quite rightly the boys at Manchester Grammar School have much more competition for the places that they are shooting for.

While this blog has focused primarily on Oxford University for personal reasons, I’m also proud of my association with the University of Bedfordshire where I was a governor and am now an Honorary Fellow. The University of Bedfordshire is much more of an access university, by which I mean the majority of its students are probably the first of their family to go to university. They will not have the same academic record at school as candidates for Oxbridge, but the University is quite likely to add more value to their attainments during the course of their time at the University.

[i] Oxford University Academics Honoured  19th June, 2021
[ii] I believe there were 26 when I was an undergraduate.
Sources: ebulletin: Oxford University Alumni: Professor Louise Richardson
How Private Schools Lost Their Grip on Oxbridge.” Brooke Masters The Week 7th August 2021

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