- first, the relative probabilities that students from different types of school got "very strong GCSEs"; ranging from 3.4% for a student from the poorest tenth of schools, to 23.4% for those from independent schools;
- second, the probability that a student from each type of school who got "very strong GCSEs" did in fact apply to Oxford at all, ranging from 14.1% to 24.6% (even higher for pupils from the richest tenth of state schools;
- third, the probability that such a student who did apply got admitted - over half for pupils from independent schools, but only about 15% for students from the poorest schools.
So there were disparities at each stage of the process. Students from state schools in poor areas were less likely to get very good GCSEs, less likely to apply, and less likely to be accepted. Not surprising; but what surprised me was the interpretation of the results. Chris concluded
"The FT’s analysis supports the view held by elite universities that the problem lies largely not with universities but in the school system."This is undoubtedly correct, so far as it goes. But Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, seems to think that Oxford is entirely off the hook:
“Even when poorer students get the right grades they are much less likely than their wealthier peers to apply to top universities. We cannot offer places to those who do not apply.”
The Russell Group's refusal to engage with the issue isn't just a matter of an off-the-cuff quote to a newspaper either; their submission to the Commons Select Committee takes the same line, arguing - accurately enough - that
The most important reason why too few poorer students even apply to leading universities is that they are not achieving the required grades at schoolbut simply ignoring the admissions disparity; even though that is the one thing that is actually under their direct control.
On the other hand, there is surely a strong argument that the innate ability of a pupil who, coming from one of the poorest state schools, still manages to get very strong GCSEs and apply to Oxford, is likely to be rather greater than a similarly qualified independent school pupil. And indeed there is statistical evidence that the second effect appears to dominate; as this study, coincidentally also about Oxford, found:
Private school students perform less well in final examinations relative to their GCSE results when compared with state school students
So it is in the light of the data above that we should read articles like this in the Telegraph, that claim that efforts to reduce this disparity are "social engineering"; or reports like this, from the "Fair Access to University Group", which simply assert without looking at admissions data that "it is clear that the problem lies not in universities’ admissions policies".
In fact, what the data and evidence suggest is that Oxford is already, and has been for some time, engaging in "social engineering" in favour of private school pupils. It has an admissions process that favours them and admits them even though they are less likely to get good degrees. Reversing that might or might not constitute further "social engineering" but the evidence suggests it would improve not only make Oxford less socially exclusive, but more rather than less meritocratic. (To be fair, I should note that Chris, who is much better informed on this than me, thinks that Oxford is now genuinely focusing on some of these issues).