The Univ Opportunity Programme 2020
Now in its fourth year, the Univ Opportunity Programme exists to drive up the number of offers of an undergraduate place made to students from under-represented backgrounds, and to provide those students with additional academic support prior to beginning their degree through an intensive bridging course. So far, 47 offers have been made under the scheme in 15 subjects.
Prior to the scheme’s launch, the College made an average of six offers per year to students coming from what the University defines as its least advantaged cohort of UK applicants. Since the scheme’s launch, it has made an average of 21 offers per year to such students. In 2017, the then Minister for Science and Universities congratulated the College on the programme in the UK Parliament. In 2018, the Univ Opportunity Programme was awarded first prize in the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Awards in the category “promoting diversity in the student body.” In 2019, the scheme was formally adopted by the University, and the Governing Body of every undergraduate college has now voted to participate in the scheme under the joint-name of Opportunity Oxford.
Here at Univ, the scheme represents a significant increase in the size of our student body – at steady state, an extra 35 students per year – and it does so in a way that is focused explicitly on increasing the representation of the marginalised and the disadvantaged. The commitment to admitting these students was a significant driver of the College’s decision to develop its North Oxford site on the scale that it is now proposed. The North Oxford site and the promotion of equality of opportunity go hand in hand.
What is the Univ Opportunity Programme?
Under its Opportunity Programme, Univ has increased its undergraduate intake by ten students per year. These new places are filled through the University’s normal competitive admissions process, but are available only to students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. These additional students are selected in the usual way and according to the usual academic criteria for undergraduate entry. Students are eligible for one of these new places if they are BOTH predicted to achieve the standard conditional offer for the course to which they have applied AND they are also flagged as coming from an under-represented background according to the standard contextual measures which the University uses when assessing its undergraduate applicants.
Specifically, students are eligible if they come BOTH from a lower-performing school AND live in an area of relative socio-economic deprivation as measured by ACORN and/or POLAR data. In the jargon of university admissions, these students are classed as having an overall widening participation flag. Additionally, all students who have been in the care of their local authority for more than three months are eligible. Students from these backgrounds are among those whom the University has identified as the most under-represented in its student body and are therefore a priority for widening access.
In creating extra places, the College is both increasing the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds at Oxford and ensuring that no other strong applicant is arbitrarily displaced. In so doing, it has taken upon itself a very considerable additional burden of student housing and financial support. The need to accommodate and support our new additional students has been a very major driver of the North Oxford project.
Each student admitted under the Opportunity Programme takes part in an intensive bridging course in the summer before they start their degree. This is because we recognise that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have had the opportunity to broaden and deepen their academic skills and experience beyond the school curriculum. Breadth and depth of academic experience are of real benefit to students embarking on demanding degrees – arguably they are essential. The provision of this Bridging Course helps tutors to feel confident in making additional offers in the first place: the Bridging Course permits and supports the admissions decision which might not otherwise have been made.
The Bridging Course is free to participating students.
How are the students selected?
We run all aspects of our admissions processes as usual through the long-listing and shortlisting stages, and we abide by all University norms. When the time comes to draw up our final offers lists, we select the usual number of students in the usual way. This includes a full engagement with intercollegiate moderation processes. Having done that, we then look closely at all candidates who both meet the Opportunity Programme’s eligibility criteria and have performed very well in the admissions process, and yet in the event have narrowly missed out on a place so far. We also seek out and consider eligible students who have just missed out at other colleges. We identify the strongest among them and make approximately ten Opportunity Programme offers. All students who are made an offer meet the standard departmental shortlisting criteria, all are flagged for both socio-economic and educational background, and all are predicted to meet or exceed the standard conditional offer for their course. Put differently, they are all high-achieving students from under-represented backgrounds who have performed extremely well in the University’s admissions process and yet would not have been admitted but for the Opportunity Programme.
What has been the impact of the programme?
The impact of the Univ Opportunity Programme has been marked. In its first year, 2017, ten strong students from disadvantaged backgrounds were made offers at Univ who would not have been otherwise. A further 12 students with an overall widening participation flag were also made offers. This means that a total of 22 students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were made offers, compared with an average of just six over the previous three years. A further 30 Univ offer-holders for 2017 entry were flagged under one or more of the contextual data categories.
In the second year of its operation, 2018, 11 students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were made offers under the scheme, and a further six offers were made to candidates with an overall widening participation flag. Additionally, a further 27 offer-holders were flagged under one or more of the University’s contextual data categories.
In the third year of its operation, 2019, 13 students were made offers under the scheme, and a further 11 offers were made to candidates with an overall widening participation flag. Additionally, a further 27 offer holders were flagged under one or more of the contextual data categories.
In the fourth year of its operation, 2020, 13 students were made offers under the scheme. In this year, the University’s use of contextual data changed, and so direct comparisons with previous years are not possible. In broad-brush terms, a further 30 students were admitted who came from what would previously have been flagged backgrounds.
Taking the four years 2017–20 together, we can be reasonably confident that not only has the Opportunity Programme permitted the College to admit approximately ten more students per year from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it has also appreciably driven up competitive applications from students from disadvantaged backgrounds more generally. Over the last four years, some 50% of the College’s UK offer-holders have been flagged under at least one of the University’s contextual data categories. This represents an astonishing shift in the demographic of the College’s undergraduate students, and it has been achieved without any reduction in academic standards.
The programme has had a considerable impact beyond its significance for the students who were admitted through it. Firstly, and crucially, it has provided the College with an opportunity to think hard about undergraduate admissions and to evaluate its processes accordingly. It has re-energised our thinking about widening participation. Secondly, it has sent a clear signal to schools, parents and students that we take widening participation seriously. Thirdly, it has crystallised alumni support and led to a considerable increase in benefaction for access and widening participation activities. Fourthly, it has contributed meaningfully to the University’s ability to show progress against the targets for widening participation which it has agreed with the UK Office for Students (the Office for Fair Access, as was.) Fifthly, it has pushed into the public arena a very positive story about the College’s efforts to widen participation. We saw very positive coverage in, inter alia, The Economist, The Times, The Telegraph, and the BBC. This culminated in the then Minister for Science and Universities congratulating the College on the programme in Parliament in September 2017.
Sixthly, it has directly inspired the University’s flagship new widening participation scheme, Opportunity Oxford, which is leading to a sea change in admissions across the Collegiate University.
How have the students integrated into the College and University?
When establishing a special access scheme in a high-status institution such as Oxford, one necessarily worries about stigma. Will the access students understand themselves to be different from, or lesser than, other students? Will other students treat them as their peers, or will they resent some perceived favouritism in their special access?
There is no denying that access schemes bring with them the possibility of an uncomfortable awkwardness, and there is no denying that the possibility of stigma exists. This is as true of the Univ Opportunity Programme as it is of other such schemes. In our programme, we do not deny these risks but we seek to mitigate them. In large part, the mitigation is intrinsic to the programme’s design. The students are admitted within the Common Framework as part of the gathered field. They are made the same conditional offers as all other students, and they are treated the same come confirmation. This does a great deal to reduce the risk of stigma and it blunts much potential criticism.
Additionally, the Bridging Course takes place prior to the start of the academic year, students go home after completing it, and so when they return to Oxford in 0th week of Michaelmas the Opportunity Programme students are in all ways the same as other students. Although many do choose to identify themselves as Opportunity Programme students, they may decide not to do so. Throughout the process, from making the offer in January, through the Bridging Course, and into the first year and beyond, we are very careful and consistent in the language we use to describe the programme, both to the outside world and to the participating students.
It is a feature of Oxford admissions that most students will not know whether or not they are flagged at point of application. This, taken together with the fact that there is no special application for the Univ Opportunity Programme, means that some students express surprise at being made an offer under the scheme. Others say explicitly that they applied to the College because of the scheme, either because they presumed that they would be eligible or simply because the scheme signalled, in a general sense, that the College is open for business when it comes to diversity and inclusion. The workshops we have conducted with our students indicates that whilst most were a little unsure about their status at the start of the Bridging Course (and after all, most freshers experience considerable uncertainty about their status!) this had all but vanished by the end of the first term.
I would add one final point. Though the risk of stigma is real, and though some students experience some short-lived uncertainty over their status, the reality is that the alternative to an Opportunity Programme offer is no offer. When thinking about widening participation schemes more generally, one might ask oneself whether the risk of stigma is not rather less than the risk of not making offers to deserving students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Has the programme been evaluated?
In 2017, the College commissioned an external review of the Opportunity Programme and its Bridging Course. This was conducted by Dr Camille Kandiko-Howson, then Senior Lecturer in Higher Education and Academic Head of Student Engagement at King’s College London. This review, which was wholly positive, was shared in its entirety with the University’s Admissions Executive. The University’s Admissions Executive then commissioned its own review in 2018 as part of an evaluation of the various widening participation schemes run by the Oxford colleges. This, too, was wholly positive, and was followed by our being awarded first prize in the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Diversity Awards in the category “promoting diversity in the student body.”
In 2019, the University formally adopted the Univ Opportunity Programme as a University initiative under the name Opportunity Oxford, and now every undergraduate college in Oxford has committed to making offers under the scheme. In the latest admissions round, 126 offers were made under Opportunity Oxford, and we expect to make in excess of 200 offers per year by the third year of the programme.
A last word on what this programme is really about
When thinking about bridging courses, foundation years and other major initiatives to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in making successful applications to universities such as Oxford, it is natural to focus on what skills they most need to develop and how they can best be assisted in so doing. This is right and proper. The Univ scheme, though, has a slightly different thrust. Its primary objective is to encourage and support tutors in making offers to well-qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds who are already in our applicant pool but who would not otherwise get a place at Oxford. The Bridging Course exists to give tutors a reasonable degree of confidence that, should they make an offer to a student from a disadvantaged background who would otherwise narrowly miss out, that student will be supported in the ways that are most relevant to the demands of an Oxford degree.
Additionally, the tutor knows that she or he has the College’s support in making such an offer. We have good reasons to be confident that the Bridging Course represents effective and worthwhile preparation for participating students; but the Opportunity Programme is driven by the ambition to make offers to students, not simply to give more bridging support to students. In other words, though the Univ Opportunity Programme is often thought of as a bridging course, it is actually rather more concerned with re-thinking our admissions decisions.
Some comments from recent participants in the Univ Opportunity Programme
“The time spent on the programme was valuable in many ways: socially, academically, but most of all as an acclimatisation period. The experience meant that when October came, I was freshly aware of my capability and hit the ground running.”
Ruqayah Juyel (2017, Law)
“I was worried about my ability to cope with the workload, but the programme gave me confidence that I would be able to manage the work and do well at Oxford. It was really helpful to have friends before I arrived at university, especially since I was the only person from my school to get in.”
Guy Smith (2019, History and Politics), JCR Returning Officer and Class Equality Rep
“The programme was really helpful in providing experience of writing an academic essay in a low- pressure environment. It was also really useful to get comfortable in Oxford and the college environment before term started.”
Martha Storey (2019, Maths and Philosophy), JCR Treasurer/Vice-President
“The Bridging programme helped to ease me into independent study and made the prospect of Oxford tutorials much less scary because I already had an idea of what was expected of me and how to do it. It prepared me in terms of confidence, reassured me that Oxford could work for me, and I’ve gone on to really love my first year at university. I miss it when I’m back at home!”
Ellie English, (2017, Experimental Psychology)
Published: 20 August 2020