Labels and Acronyms

As the diversity agenda in this country becomes more and more mainstream, companies, governments, universities and institutions of all kinds are learning to talk the talk very effectively. They monitor BME (or BAME), LGBTQ, and disabled recruitment and retention, satisfaction and promotion. All of this is at least in part a response to the Single Equality Duty which requires institutions to take all reasonable steps to facilitate participation by minority groups. This is all fine: it’s certainly better than not thinking about minorities at all. But these labels, I suggest, are quite tricky: for the busy CEO or Vice Chancellor, they represent an effective shorthand, I understand that, but the truth is that no one actually identifies as LGBTQ, or BME, and disabled people are so diverse in the consequences and issues around their disability that they, I am sure, resent being lumped together with quite such ease. After all the needs and priorities for a student or prospective student with mental health issues are going to be markedly different from a student in a wheelchair’s requirements.


LGBTQ is a happy and ever-expanding acronym that now spans a wide range of people with a wide range of barriers to participation. I may be gay, but I am hardly going to be put off applying to Oxford because I am worried that my gender identity won’t be recognised or there won’t be a group of people like me – in fact, given that Oxford has double the nationwide average of gay people I might be encouraged to apply by statistics. That picture looks much less rosy for a trans* applicant. BME is perhaps the most difficult acronym we currently use: I would argue that it lumps people together in a seriously unhelpful way and masks major variations like nationality, religion, cultural praxis and general patterns of educational attainment within a specific ethnic community (e.g the sharp difference between Afro Caribbean and Anglo-Indian average educational achievement).

In short, the danger is, I think, that we professionalise and overuse these acronyms as a means to demonstrate our compliance with the law and our desire to foster diversity, and in doing so we come to think that all BME or LGBTQ people are the same and that there are people who can easily represent everyone contained within those descriptors. There are a wide range of potential access issues that are specific to some within BME, and some very sensitive ones for some people within LGBTQ – there are certainly serious issues that may hinder applications from disabled people. There are though, in all three cases, few commonalities that would apply to everyone described by those terms. In my view, this is similar to the situation with state schools: if we take state school origin as a blunt indicator for “widening participation”, we may look good to OFFA and the Secretary of State but we will be ignoring the fact that many of our “widening participation” students come from wealthy backgrounds and attended Home Counties grammar schools with exiguous proportions of students on free school meals. Let’s call spades spades, use these terms sensitively and not hide from the real challenges that face those working in widening participation and access to Oxford for minority young people of all kinds. We don’t do ourselves any favours by hiding behind acronyms and we don’t help any potential applicants either.


Oxford relationships

Whenever I give a tour of Brasenose or talk to a prospective student or their parent in any situation, one of the most common questions is ‘How do you choose a college? They’re all so gorgeous/ similar/ old’. My standard response is that any prospective student should spend some time talking to the tutors in their subject in that college, because an Oxford degree, especially in the Humanities, is centred on the academic and personal relationship of tutor and pupil. I tell the applicants that if they find the tutor boring in a five minute open day conversation then they should imagine how grim the prospect of seeing them again will be by fourth year. I tell them about how much I have enjoyed working for and with my own tutors and how much the relationship with them has added to my Oxford experience. This relationship can be exceptionally fruitful, and there is no better weekly incentive to work than the knowledge that you’ll have to present your thoughts to an academic who is not only an expert in the field but is also going to be a major part of your life for several years.


Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about my stock response. I am worried that the danger of emphasising how the Oxford degree consists of a relationship with your tutor or tutors could contribute to a certain exclusiveness. Does the relationship element contribute to a feeling that you have to be your tutor’s “kind of person” to get in or thrive here? Everyone knows the stories about the tutor who hasn’t taken a student who didn’t go to Harrow or Winchester for 20 years, or the two tutors who swap applicants so that one gets the pretty boys and the other the pretty girls. I’m not talking about those oddities, if they actually exist in some dark corner of the admissions process. I’m asking whether regular prospective applicants end up not applying to Oxford because they worry they aren’t “the Oxford type” – this I think is certainly a problem – and whether the emphasis on the relationships, the intimate and personal tutorial experience, puts people off because they aren’t like their potential tutor. This can be a good thing, in the sense that people choose a college and tutor with whom they feel they could develop a good working relationship, as I said earlier, but what if for some people there is no tutor with whom they gel, and they walk away thinking you have to be a certain kind of person to go to Oxford.


The second problem, I think, is that once people are at Oxford, they can sometimes live in terror of upsetting their tutor because that person has so much influence over their experience at Oxford. We need to have strong support systems in place so that when the tutorial relationship runs into difficulties, it isn’t just left to the two parties to sort it out. That isn’t a means to weaken the primacy of the tutor-pupil relationship but a way to make it sustainable. Relationships are difficult – we shouldn’t be surprised if they put some prospective applicants off, or cause some angst for some people once they are here. Tutors should never be ashamed to admit that their relationship with a student has broken down, and vice versa: it happens. The key is to make clear that you are never actually alone in your relationship with your tutor. Fellow students, other tutors and friends can all help, of course, but for more serious problems there should also be clear lines of communication with the Senior Tutor in a college and with Common Room and OUSU trained advisors.

Finally, since I’m running out of time, it’s worth saying that this is about 1000% as significant an issue with grads as with undergrads – the lonely journey of thesis-writer and supervisor can cause immense problems, and we have to make sure we strengthen the support available for doctoral students. These relationships are the heart of the Oxford system and they are absolutely wonderful things when they go right: but let’s not pretend they never go wrong.

Access and Disability

In writing about disability, I am acutely conscious that I am not disabled, that I cannot speak from personal experience. I don’t know whether it is better just to accept I have no grounds on which to speak about this issue, or to trumpet that my first long-term relationship was with someone who was disabled and the insights I gained from that experience. I do know that it would not be good not to speak about this topic – open discussion and informed debate are the best way to change things! So here goes…


When I was at the Labour Party conference the best speech I heard was by Sophie Christiansen, gold-medallist British paralympian from the 2012 Paralympics. Sophie spoke about the challenges she faced trying to enter the world of work, and one line has stuck with me, “People imagine because I am a paralympian, I have overcome the difficulties of my disability – nothing could be further from the truth”. I think the same might be true about disabled people who apply to Oxford – we tend to assume that if they are in a position to apply to Oxford they are no longer hindered by the effects of their disability.


Yet very often, disability’s consequences are inherently variable: people have good days and bad days, and circumstance and environment can have a substantial effect on the disability. During the recent Open Days, I was thinking a bit about access and disability for various reasons. Brasenose is a beautiful college and a very welcoming one, but you couldn’t say we were easily accessible. We are surrounded by cobbles, filled with narrow staircases and uneven surfaces and other impediments to accessibility.


Now, Brasenose makes a serious effort to make itself more accessible and I know that college staff take that duty very seriously. There is great information and support out there if you look for it – the University’s Disability service and the College staff are both exceptionally supportive, I am told, to disabled students: from the JCR perspective we are probably not very aware of the challenges of disability but I am confident that people would make every effort if they were asked to do so. My point is that so often in Oxford reality is less important than perception and myth, and the perception of Brasenose is probably not that we are the easiest or best place to come as a disabled student.


Let’s change that perception: just as we work incredibly hard to make it obvious that Oxford is a place where anyone can come regardless of background, as long as they have the ability, let’s try and make it clearer that it is a place where anyone will be welcomed and supported and included, regardless of disability.

Let’s start by putting more information out there in an interesting way. I looked at two college and JCR sites while preparing this article: both college websites had pages on disability, written in rather dry and technical vocabulary that frankly seemed primarily designed to satisfy the requirements of the Single Equality Duty, and neither JCR alternative prospectus mentioned disability at all. I’m not saying in either College or JCR there is a single person who wouldn’t be incredibly supportive and work hard to help a disabled prospective student, but as I said before, this is a major perception issue. We can do better than this!

Open Days, Donors, Dinners & OFFA

I’ve had a really busy weekend and I wanted to reflect a little bit on the variety of experiences I’ve been privileged to have over the last few days.

First of all, on Friday I helped at the last Oxford Open Day of 2013. In June I was based in Brasenose, taking groups of prospective applicants round my College and singing its praises. It was great to see that was going on again this time and that Brasenose still has such exceptionally enthusiastic and hardworking helpers. I really do think that the Brasenose model: no booking, just turn up and we’ll have loads of students keen to take you around (and paying those students for their work) is one that more colleges should adopt. This Friday though, I was based at my Faculty, Classics, talking to people there. Faculties don’t play that much of an obvious role in many undergraduates’ lives at Oxford, apart from providing, normally, another big library to use. I am always keen to volunteer to help in the Classics Faculty, though, because I know that we have a difficult task: the easiest way for Oxford to improve its access figures for OFFA would be to ditch my degree, simply because we have so many privately educated classicists.


These days, you don’t need to do Latin or Greek at school to be an Oxford classicist, as well as two great degrees that don’t have as much compulsory language work, or any, Classical Archaeology & Ancient History and Ancient & Modern History, there is Course II in Classics itself, where the finest language teachers in the world give you intensive training to learn these languages. Classics has a high acceptance rate at interview, and we should promote it to people who might otherwise apply for History or PPE because they will have a much better chance of getting in for Classics than they might otherwise. Biochemistry would be a similar alternative to Medicine, Theology to PPE or History. We should also sell Classics because it is fantastic: it is an insight into an entire ancient world, literature, yes, but also philosophy, archaeology, economics, history, politics, sociology and linguistics (and probably many more aspects too). In what other degree could you range from John Stuart Mill to curse tablets written by women in ancient Greek temples via Foucault,  Roman politics and the finer points of New Institutional Economics! Classics may be a hard sell, but it is a great degree, and we need to work hard to promote it to people who would never even hear about it, never mind apply for it. There is great work being done, but we must do more.

The world of access stayed with me for the rest of the weekend: the Prime Minister’s brief visit to Brasenose was all about the importance of philanthropy to prop up higher education in the current economic climate and at the dinner afterwards I met an alumnus who had been generously supporting Brasenose’s access work, including part of the costs of our incredibly active Schools Office. Not that many students care too much about our alumni until they become one themselves, but they have an incredibly important role to play, as mentors and guides but also as crucial funders for the vital work of outreach and access to Oxford. So it was a real pleasure for me to attend the Brasenose alumni society annual dinner on Saturday and to thank them for their generosity to the College and their ongoing commitment to its values and mission.


I suppose my broader point is that access work requires many different people’s contribution: the wonderfully cheerful and tireless students taking people on tours, the advisors and experts who can point applicants to courses that they might never hear about and persuade them that they could enjoy something as esoteric as Classics, the donors who make it all possible financially and even the charming bureaucrats at the Office for Fair Access who make sure we all do our best to make Oxford what it should be: a place where the brightest young people can come together, from all over the world, from all backgrounds and communities, to study and learn together and from one another.

I haven’t even mentioned the Labour Party Conference, from which I got back today. That’ll have to be tomorrow’s post. 


On Quotas

I’m going to write a little about quotas this morning – this can be a topic that provokes great wrath so please understand, dear reader (if you’re out there), that my ideas are tentative and for discussion, they are not dogmas or new certainties.

These thoughts were inspired by an article in today’s Guardian ( about the paucity of women MPs in the Liberal Democrats. I am proud to belong to the Labour party and I have always believed in the value and effectiveness of our all-women shortlists (not all-female shortlists, by the way) as a means for achieving equal representation of men and women. Not that Labour is there yet, with less than a third of our MPs being women in the current Parliament, but we do have the highest proportion of women of the three main parliamentary parties. In short, I’m a fan of all-women shortlists and I have seen that they do work.

So why have I always been opposed to any form of quotas for admission to Oxford? I don’t mean for women*, since thankfully at the undergraduate level there is broad gender parity, but for some other under-represented groups. The argument is, I think, straightforward: there have been structural impediments to the ability of say, Afro-Caribbean origin young people or young people from deprived backgrounds (as used to be determined by free school meals until the dawning of the age of Clegg) to get into Oxford, and so to right that wrong and as a temporary measure, quotas could be used to ensure that there was a certain minimum representation of that group. The quota wouldn’t be set at the level of true proportional representation: i.e there wouldn’t have to be 93% state school students at Oxford even though that is the percentage of young people in Britain who go to state school. They’d be fixed by, say, the Office of Fair Access, at some sensible level between the true proportion and the current numbers.

The argument I always used to make against such a system was that no one would want to go to Oxford as part of a quota, and that they would be considered inferior, but women Labour MPs don’t seem to feel inferior and they don’t seem to refuse to join all-woman shortlists. So is it just that we all need to get over our squeamishness about quotas and accept that they are a necessary tool to overcome structural inequalities in our society? Or is the analogy between Parliament and Oxford not tenable? I’m really asking.

*Incidentally, I do think there ought to be a minimum level of representation for women on the governing body of Oxford colleges. From Michaelmas my college will have 5 women on GB, down from 8 last year: that’s fewer women than Classicists. It can’t be right.


A Response to Carole Cadwalladr


Carol Cadwalladr’s article about Oxbridge and inequality ( made a number of inaccurate statements and for the sake of any teacher or prospective applicant reading, I want to make the following reply.


Oxford chooses its students purely on merit. We are trying to get the best young people to come to our University because they are the ones who will get the most out of the intellectual challenge Oxford poses, and because it’s a crucial part of how we stay academically excellent: this much should surely be obvious. While I cannot comment on the individual case of Alastair Herron, in any system where 17000 people compete for 3500 places, brilliant candidates will be rejected. We do not pretend our system is perfect, but to imply, as I feel Ms Cadwalladr’s article does, that it was predjudice or bias in favour of the privately educated that led to Mr Herron not getting an offer is not only unfair and insulting to the hard work put in by those who apply to Oxford, both successfully and unsucccessfully, but also a slur against the intentions of the selectors, Oxford academics.


Ms Cadwalladr also notes the difference between Mansfield and Brasenose’s proportions of the privately educated. As JCR President of Brasenose, I “quietly despair” at this comment. While I do not deny the statistic’s truth, I know that Brasenose puts an enormous amount of time and effort into promoting access to the college. The vast majority of this time is put in, voluntarily, by Brasenose undergraduates who are extraordinarily passionate about promoting the college to people from any background. This effort by the students is paralleled by major financial investment by the College in access work, manifested, for example, in a full time employee who travels to schools and colleges in our link region of North Yorkshire and brings students from that region to Brasenose. The implication of Ms Cadwalladr’s comment, that Brasenose simply does not care as much as Mansfield is simply incorrect. I am deeply proud of the effort Brasenose puts into access work. On our three annual open days, we throw open our doors and show thousands of students round the College, along with dozens of smaller, subject specific days over the course of the year. Thanks to this work, we now have the highest overall application rate of any college, which means that our tutors can choose the best students for the course. This is, surely, the only fair and acceptable criterion on which Oxford should select its undergraduates.  It might also be worth saying that if we care solely about social mobility, Brasenose should win the contest: it gives more students from state schools an Oxford education than Mansfield every year simply by being a bigger college.


Any state school student reading Ms Cadwalladr’s article should rest assured that Oxford is an incredibly diverse and welcoming environment, in which some – we don’t have room for all – of the brighest young people in Britain and the world come together to pursue the life of the mind. They should also be aware that a major reason that private school applicants are 9% more likely to be successful in their application is that state school candidates cluster around a few highly competitive subjects with an obvious link to a career: Politics, Philosophy & Economics; Economics & Management; Law, and Medicine, namely. Oxford’s response is to put a major effort into promoting lesser known subjects, like Theology, Oriental Studies, Biochemistry and my own degree, Classics. None of these require any training not commonly available in state schools, since you no longer need Latin or Greek to read Classics, and all have a much higher acceptance rate than Law and Medicine.


Of course, Oxford has its posh kids, and of course there are people who like to be around people like them and inhabit a cosy bubble of privilege, but in my experience the vast majority of Oxford students and tutors want our University to be the best it can be academically and as diverse as possible a community. Ms Cadwalladr proposes no solution to her worries, perhaps because there is no magic bullet for inequality in our society. Her suggestion, though, that Oxford is part of the problem and not the solution is grossly unfair to the hard work put in by the University and students to ensure that it is the quality of your mind, not the background of your parents, that determines whether you can study at Oxford University.

Finally, I would like to invite Ms Cadwalladr to visit Brasenose during an open day or an access scheme, so that at least her views on our role in British society can be based on reality, not a few anecdotes or misrepresented statistics.


The Why

I’ve started this blog because I want somewhere to publish my response to an article Carole Cadwalladr wrote ( earlier this summer about Oxford and access. I’m going to start with that, then try and write as often as I can on student issues and especially admissions, outreach and access to university, a subject I care passionately about. 

I hope you find it interesting, occasionally challenging and sometimes provocative, but it is going to be, I hope, above all a positive contribution to a sensible and evidence-based discussion of policy and student life.