Private school pupils will not be restricted from getting places at Oxford University, the new vice-chancellor has said.
Prof Irene Tracey, who is the first comprehensive-school educated vice-chancellor of Oxford, told The Telegraph that the university should not be so “binary” about its mix of undergraduates and said she is against setting targets to grow the proportion of state school pupils.
The neuroscientist, 56, who was formally admitted as the university’s 273rd vice-chancellor this morning, said: “It’s absolutely not about having a particular target or quotas. It’s a bigger mission than that, which is to have a broad and open desire for students from any background who wish to come here because they think this is going to be what’s going to best suit them.”
She added: “So it’s not restricting it to certain groups or certain sectors and certainly within that will be of course, a continuation in engaging with the state school sector…and the private school sector, which we absolutely recognize that we’ve got kids there who are on bursaries, increasingly, that you’ve got kids from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It’s about a broader conversation [that] I think that we need to start having about the mix of students that were coming in and not being so sort of binary in that mix.”
Her comments mark a change in tone from senior university figures in recent years, who have celebrated rising numbers of state school pupils and said they are “determined” to increase the number of students from backgrounds that are “not as well-represented at Oxford as they should be”.
Between 2017 and 2021, the proportion of state school pupils starting undergraduate degrees at Oxford rose from 58 per cent to 68 per cent.
Private schools warned last year that they feared their pupils were being discriminated against by Oxbridge admissions tutors under pressure to boost the number of state school pupils to make the system look fairer.
The Oxbridge success rate of 50 leading independent schools has dropped by a third in five years, The Telegraph revealed.
Prof Tracey said her three children had been educated at state primary schools and private secondary schools. “I’m living and breathing the issues with my own family in terms of them going to secondary school in the private sector, so I understand all the arguments,” she said.
The vice-chancellor, who studied Biochemistry at Oxford and held a postdoctoral position at Harvard before returning to Oxford in 1997 as a founding member of the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging, said that in her experience, university admissions were “really fair” and “really thorough”.
“The reality is as we open up the appetite for people to want to come to places like Oxford, there’s just going to be larger numbers and more competitive candidates,” she said.
Prof Tracey said that Oxford needs to “skill up” its students to make them more attractive to employers because specialised A Levels can leave science students without adequate writing skills and arts students lacking in data skills.
She said that “knowledge generation and knowledge transfer” are core to improving stability in a world where challenges include “disinformation”, “distrust of experts”, “global political unrest” and “governance of artificial intelligence” and “defending free speech”.
Some academics want the proportion of private school pupils to continue to decline to around seven per cent, to reflect the number of UK pupils who attend state schools and colleges.
Prof Tracey rejected this analysis. She said the higher proportion of private school-educated undergraduates compared to the proportion of UK children who attend private schools was a reflection of “where we are in our educational journey in terms of how we prepare our schools and our school children to go to university, the desire to go to university, and then, you know, achieving the grades in order for them to come and do the degrees that they want to do.”
In comments released ahead of a speech at Prof Tracey’s admission ceremony today, Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong who is chancellor of Oxford University, said: “What we are not at Oxford and Cambridge is exclusive.”
He warned that Oxford and Cambridge “cannot make good all the failures in British society”, including “inadequate state education” in some parts of the country.
He added: “Our policy on access needs, as I’ve suggested, must continue to be imaginatively proactive so that we can show that Oxford is genuinely ability-rich and means-blind with a wide, diverse academic community.”
Prof Tracey told The Telegraph she understood concerns that international students, who accounted for almost a fifth of first-year undergraduates admitted last year, do not face the same “contextual” offer process, which considers how a candidate’s school and background may have impacted their education.
She said: “The challenge we’ve got is how to contextualise that data [from international students].”
She added: “The data is quite quickly changing in terms of who’s applying and whether they want to apply now into the UK sector…I think we’re on a journey. Obviously we’ve got more control of getting access to the contextualised data in the UK system than we would from some of the other sectors.”TIOB News