Posted inOpinion

North of the border: Oxford’s abysmal Scottish access record

2019 is the worst year on record for Scottish representation in Oxford, with offers falling from 51 in 2018 to just 31. Damningly, only 11 of those 31 were state school students. That means that the proportion of Oxford state school to private school students for Scotland is around one-third compared to the UK as a whole’s two-thirds. What makes this all the worse is that there are almost two times as many privately educated students in the whole of the UK as there are in Scotland (seven percent versus four percent). 

These stats run almost parallel with Cambridge’s – only 17 Scottish state school students were accepted to Cambridge in 2019. This was from a total of 47 Scottish students, resulting in a 36.2% state school admission rate. By contrast, Cambridge’s UK state school admissions rate was 68.7%. Scotland also has by far the lowest success rate of any region in the UK in terms of gaining offers at 15.4% to the next lowest Wales’ 20.8%. As a result, many independent English schools (Westminster with 33, Eton with 23 etc.) are each sending more students to Cambridge than Scotland’s entire state sector.

This is something I know only too well. Possessing a strong accent emanating from the schemes of Glasgow’s east-end, I am proud of my working-class roots. Yet, despite the prevalence of what some would call the roughness of my accent in and around the Scottish west coast, I have never heard one similar to it in Oxford. 

You may be reading this wondering whether it actually matters that my thick ‘weegie brogue sticks out in conversation – I’d argue that it most certainly does. As most regional students would attest to, having a regional accent makes you instantly recognisable and when this accent is as strong as mine, it becomes a character trait most people pick up on and tend to be hesitant to let go of. I’m often fooled into believing that I am of relatively strong character yet, despite the often-ebullient portrait I adopt, feeling like you stick out like a sore thumb is a jarring, lonesome affair. For those who have had an onerous path to Oxbridge, seeing oneself wholly unrepresented makes an already exclusionary journey rather more difficult. Just as being close to those with similar life experiences is a comfort in an awkward environment, having people to turn to with similar intonations and vocabularies is a linguistic embrace in a touch-starved conversational sphere. I know that I and people like myself would feel much more at home if our place of study sounded more like we do; seeing to this requires a revolution in how Scottish outreach is done.

The university lavishes praise on itself for incrementally raising the number of students from state backgrounds at Oxford, but its outreach strategy completely ignores Scotland. This is against a backdrop of social mobility research suggesting Scotland – in particular Glasgow – is home to some of, if not the most, deprived areas in the UK. A member of The Clydeside Project executive committee met with the University Outreach Office to discuss this where it was openly admitted that until 2020 the University’s annual Scottish teachers conference was being attended almost exclusively by teachers from private schools. The point about a greater proportion of students being educated privately in the UK as a whole compared to Scotland was met with genuine surprise. It seemed no one in a university department ostensibly concerned with Scottish outreach was aware of this obvious fact.

It’s this dreadful dearth of Scottish state-school representation, and the positives it would bring if reversed, that makes the work of The Clydeside Project so vital. In its efforts to take on this difficult task, they reach out directly to schools across Scotland, consulting with head teachers and UCAS referees in order to sell the Oxbridge experience to potential applicants – something noticeably deficient in the university’s approach. Crucially, they offer completely free and comprehensive application mentoring to students all across the country.

I feel that I almost certainly would not have made it to Oxford were it not for May, my incredibly supportive history teacher, who was also somewhat of a mentor for me during my last year at school; offering advice and emotional support during the application and interview process. May was recently awarded the Oxford Inspirational Teachers Award for the support and inspiration she provided me during my application process. I cannot express the lengths she went to help me, or the gratitude I feel towards her. If every applicant received this kind of assistance during the difficult application process (assistance that is not uncommon in private/grammar schools in the rest of the UK) then the issue of Scottish state-school representation would get a definite boost. 

However, mentoring and application support does very little to end the supercilious reputations that Oxford and Cambridge have maintained throughout their history; this can only be done through a representation revolution. If the mythical poshness of our finest educational institutions was destroyed, and the institutional reinforcements of our schooling and personal communities reflected this, then students from ‘non-traditional social backgrounds’ would feel much more comfortable both applying and studying here. Through this, I firmly believe that Oxbridge would take its place as part of the ‘great equalizer’, allowing education to fully fulfil its role as a harbinger of social and economic justice.

Christopher O’Neil is the Secretary of the Clydeside Project. If you’d like to get involved and give up to an hour a week of your time, feel free to drop him a message or leave your contact details on their website.