Oxford, the Foundation Year, and the Possibility of Access

by | January 3, 2023

In the popular imagination, Oxford University remains the preserve of the elite – the ultimate ivory tower.

The university prides itself on providing excellence in education. Such a claim demands a hierarchy of (less excellent) institutions, and (less excellent) resources. In other words, elitism, at an elite university, might just be structurally inevitable. Despite a radical restructuring of higher education in Britain, Oxford will always remain a snowy peak. That does not mean, however, that the path to access should be equally restrictive. In recent years, praiseworthy efforts have been made to ease the potential admission of students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. Yet they are not without their issues, particularly as they come into conflict with conservative structural forces. The Astrophoria Foundation Year, one of the university’s latest access projects, deserves particular examination for initiating a tumult of integration and reform. The project operates as a bridging course for select students in preparation for the undergraduate degree and is set to officially open to applicants in 2023.

Access efforts must be understood within the long-term goal of expanding meritocracy. Historically, Oxford has been incredibly selective in admissions. At times when the gap between private and state-funded secondary education was even greater, it overwhelmingly favoured those from wealthier backgrounds. The notion that certain people are not selected simply for not having been born or brought up a particular way, and for not having had the opportunities that such a lifestyle affords, is absurd.

Trends have undoubtedly improved in recent years. The proportion of UK students entering the university from state school backgrounds has risen markedly over the past 40 years, from around 45% in 1982 to almost 70% today, though there is still an imbalance as they consistently make up 93% of British students and 80% of A-Level entrants.

However, we must be wary of overembellishing this progress. These figures fail to consider the rapid rise in international entries to Oxford, overwhelmingly favouring students from fee-paying backgrounds. Neither do they acknowledge the vast inequalities between students, even in the state sector. ACORN, the tool Oxford uses to track disadvantages in admissions, assesses that 40% of the British population live in the most underprivileged conditions. In 2021, only 17% of students admitted to Oxford came from these backgrounds. Significant efforts must be made to combat this pervasive inequality. Even in light of the university’s manipulation of these figures, sceptics still question the effectiveness of the efforts proposed.

This same unease clouds attitudes towards the Astrophoria Foundation Year, as it prepares for a delayed launch in the 2023 academic year. Foundation years, by now well-established at many of the country’s leading universities, aim to provide an additional year of preparation in the transition between secondary and higher education. These are particularly targeted towards students who may not be able to transition directly from school to an undergraduate course. At most universities, these programmes serve as a key link for students with a desire to enter higher education but whose present circumstances might not allow it.

At Oxford, as ever, there are broader implications. Beyond the transitional character of other foundation year programmes, the university’s courses operate as part of wider access initiatives, with the Oxford programme’s coordinator telling me that they are “designed to improve opportunities for access to its undergraduate courses for talented students from all backgrounds.” This project mandates correcting the demographic biases of the Oxford selection process. It targets “specifically” those “UK state school students with significant academic potential… who have experienced severe personal disadvantage or disrupted education which has resulted in them being unable to apply directly for an Oxford undergraduate programme.” Beginning next year, the foundation year seeks to offer what was previously impossible to a cohort of around 50 students across various colleges and departments.

Access is unmistakably the priority here. The programme highlights the university’s desire to correct negative perceptions, which have only seemed to escalate with the success of previous efforts. “The vision,” I’m told, is to “provide students who would not usually be in a position to access Oxford University, due to circumstances beyond their control, the opportunity to reach their academic potential and access an Oxford undergraduate degree course should they want to.” Along with Opportunity Oxford and the UNIQ Summer School programme, the foundation year reveals a broader trend in the university’s focus. And the evidence suggests these schemes are working.

Pilot foundation years at Lady Margaret Hall were underway in the 2016-17 academic year, apparently with a broadly positive reception. While there were, of course, challenges, one foundation year student told me, for those first cohorts ­– namely in establishing a relationship in the college with the larger undergraduate community – barriers seem to have been lifted. The programme is now so well-established at LMH, he claims that it’s “like the foundation years are embedded into the system.” It’s an incredibly refreshing sentiment, one compounded by the “welcoming” attitude he describes both inside and outside the college. The impression one gets is of a programme ready for expansion, and the decision three years ago to build towards a university-wide scheme by 2022 indicates significant satisfaction at the administrative level.

However, there are some troubling elements. The decision was made in 2021 to delay expansion to the 2023 academic year, “to ensure,” the coordinator told me, “enough time to develop a robust and academically rigorous programme… in light of the impact of the Covid pandemic.” These were clearly not easy conclusions, speaking to a struggle at the heart of the project’s implementation: adapting the rigid Oxford system to the possibility of access. Disruption due to the pandemic was to be expected, and should not be interpreted as passivity on the part of the programme’s coordinators. Yet suggestions that those within the university’s bureaucracy were reluctant might not be baseless either. A former member of the Student Union at Wadham, a prospective foundation year college, expressed to me the reticence of several tutors who argued in favour of postponing the project last year. It’s clear that many, he claimed, hold an “unwillingness to change generally.” A number of those at the decision-making level believe that expenses not previously afforded should not be allowed for current or prospective undergraduates, including, presumably, ease of access for students from underprivileged backgrounds.

The pervasiveness of these attitudes, and their consequences for those students, make explicit the structural issues that foundation year students face. It’s telling, then, that in 2020 LMH considered cancelling the programme. “If there are any problems,” the committee member claimed, “it’s [these experiments] that will be the first to go”, seen as superfluous and needlessly complicated. Indeed, he alleges a real risk that, “if not done right the first time around,” the project will be deemed a failure by many higher-ups and postponed again. It is unlikely that the foundation year is truly in such a precarious position. A degree of goodwill and the instructions of a parallel programme at Cambridge ought to act as buoys for its success in 2023. However, the obstruction – if not active, then at the very least dismissive – plagues the project.

If representative of a strong aspiration to make changes to the university, the foundation year also reflects the strength required for this aspiration to succeed in overcoming conservative structural forces. Most revealing of all is the degree to which resource allocation varies across colleges. Unsurprisingly, it’s those colleges with the greatest financial capacity which are most unlikely to be involved in the foundation year project. Some of this, of course, is self-fulfilling: students from diverse backgrounds tend towards picking more inclusive colleges, but those more inclusive colleges likely have a lower financial capacity owing to a lower rate of alumni support. It’s no coincidence, either, that colleges with the oldest traditions and the wealthiest student communities are the least active in pursuing the interests of less well-off prospective students, shirking the social scrutiny faced by the university as a whole as the particular pursuit of other, more diverse colleges.

Intercollegiate inequality is a significant factor in issues facing underprivileged students, as has recently been the case for care leavers seeking accommodation during the long vacation. One student, an ambassador for the UNIQ programme, told me that on his arrival at Oxford he had firmly believed in the possibility of “equality of opportunity.” In his experiences with these projects, however, he had transitioned to contending that the barriers students face are numerous and complex, and that the university’s responsibility to these students in advocating ease of access is the active deconstruction of these barriers.

For the foundation year, this means a reframing away from what many, I’m told, feel is a culture of insecurity in which students are expected to work harder than their peers in order to earn their place on an undergraduate course. These expectations blur the border between distinction and segregation, making the academic experience of the foundation year student decidedly challenging in a different manner to that of the average undergraduate. Foundation year students are not, for instance, considered matriculated members of the university, and are thus excluded from the SU and the protections it might offer. This is a shocking reflection of how the foundation year student is envisioned, not as an equal member of the undergraduate community, but as something entirely different and separate. Without protection from the SU, these students have little in the way of collective bargaining power with the university, an impact made all the more remarkable considering the numerous other barriers they’re demographically likelier to face. By virtue of its selection process, the foundation year favours students from communities underrepresented at Oxford, whether in terms of disability, race, region, or myriad other factors. These compound barriers, and the inability to contest them, positions foundation year students at an even further disadvantage.

There is already great divergence in the early academic outcomes of undergraduate students from state and private schools, with prelim examinations greatly favouring the privately educated. The extent of investment in a student’s education has a significant impact on that student’s capabilities. This may seem like stating the obvious, but it is yet to be acknowledged by many at the administrative level. Another anecdote from a college committee member, who mentions the bewilderment of some tutors at the widened gap between state and privately educated students’ results from lockdown exams, points to a striking ignorance of the effects of social difference. “They’re still scared,” he says, “of the idea of class.”

Beyond the academic, there can be little doubt of the financial differences between students in their access to formal events or other costly traditions upheld by many colleges. For foundation year students, just as for other students from underprivileged backgrounds, or those who live with disabilities, acknowledging that barriers to access exist must also require acknowledging that a student’s performance is inexorably tied to these barriers. Diversity of performance is not nearly reflective of the diversity of potential, and, as a student involved in access work suggested, “We should not be penalised for seeking help.”

To some, there is a degree of inevitability to the existence of barriers, particularly at the cultural level. But progress is possible – indeed, it is already underway. Efforts appear to be accelerating, with one student activist commenting on a marked difference in tone by administrators in the post-pandemic era, and applauding colleges’ decisions to be as inclusive as possible in the muddled admissions processes of 2020 and 2021.

It would be wrong to conclude that there are no challenges ahead, yet neither is it the case that access efforts have hit a brick wall. It is only through an active push, whether from outside the university or from internal pressures such as the student union’s Class Act project, that access will be improved, and the inertia encouraged by certain higher-ups combated. A more open re-imagining of Oxford, one which pursues academic excellence while guaranteeing active engagement with differences of background and their impact on performance, seems both achievable and necessary. The foundation year must be understood as a harbinger of these reforms.

Words by Efan Owen. Art by Betsy McGrath.