Oxford admissions, those misleading Department for Education stats, and the real challenge for social mobility

by Stephen Tall on October 10, 2013

You can tell it’s the start of autumn. Forget the chill in the air, Oxbridge admissions are in the headlines again. Last night, Newsnight editor Ian Katz tweeted a familiar-sounding figure: ‘Only 40 students who received free school meals got into Oxford and Cambridge in last year for which figures available.’

The figure is produced and published by the Department for Education. And it is, let’s be clear, misleading to the point of uselessness.

Eligibility for free school meals is commonly used, by politicians and the media, as a proxy for the income status of students. And we know exactly what these figures are for the Oxford half of Oxbridge because the University publishes them. The latest available stats show that, out of the 9,505 UK students doing a first degree:

935 students had household incomes below £16,190, the key eligibility criterion for free school meals (of which 295 had been in the independent sector)

That’s roughly 10% of the undergraduate student body at Oxford. True, that’s below the c.16% of all pupils nationally eligible for free school meals – but nowhere near as significantly as the DfE figures imply.

The Oxford data is, of course, for all students, not just a one-year cohort. Around 3,000 students a year are admitted by Oxford to first-degrees, though, which means you’d expect c.300 to be eligible for free school meals. So what explains the difference between the figure of 40 the DfE trots out and the published Oxford data?

Well, free school meals (FSM) is a useful measure for many things (we use it it a lot in my day job), but much less so when you’re looking at university admissions because the following categories of young people are excluded from the figure:

– anyone from a low-income household who attends an independent school on a scholarship (295 of Oxford’s 935 come from the independent sector);
– anyone who wasn’t eligible for free school meals aged 15, but would be by 18;
– anyone who’s a mature student;
– anyone whose parents aren’t also on benefits.

That all helps to explain why the Oxford 10% might start moving towards the DfE’s figure of 40.

I had this debate with education expert Sam Freedman on Twitter earlier (Storify-ed here). As I pointed out there, the problem with the DfE’s figure of ’40 FSM students make it to Oxford’ is that none of these very significant caveats are ever mentioned by the DfE. As such, it is quite simply misleading. And as a result, the figure of 40 is regularly used by Newsnight et al to bash Oxford as ‘elitist’, which risks becoming a self-perpetuating stereotype.

But there’s a bigger problem: the sterile back-and-forth over the figures lets Oxford too easily off the hook. Oxford’s admissions are better than its critics admit; but much less impressive than the University claims. Oxford (and Cambridge and the whole Russell Group) should be doing more to increase social mobility. That means piloting contextual admissions – lower entry offers based on objective assessment of academic potential for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. And it also means piloting ‘blind assessment’ to find out how far the current selection process is unconsciously biased against young people who don’t fit with academic interviewers’ criteria.

Research universities are remarkably incurious about trialling new processes. Instead they throw money at access schemes, fee waivers and bursaries without ever truly assessing if they make a cost-effective difference to admissions for the young people such initiatives are designed to help. High time for them to start focusing more rigorously on the issue.