The rising number of state school pupils winning places at Oxford is thanks to their own effort and greater ambition rather than the university’s policies, according to Oxford’s outgoing vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson.
Dismissing claims that Oxbridge is biased against applications from privately educated students, Richardson said more “smart students” are applying from the state sector and creating greater competition – causing those “who might historically have expected to get in” to publicly complain when they miss out.
“We were being attacked for not taking enough deprived kids, and now we’re being criticised for not taking enough privately educated kids. So no, we’re not discriminating,” Richardson said.
“The reality is we’ve become a much more competitive place, we have far more people applying. So as a result, more students are disappointed. And perhaps the students who might historically have expected to get in who are disappointed are more vocal about that.
“But it’s simply a matter of numbers: we turn down more people because we have more people applying and the number of places hasn’t changed.”
As she prepares to leave office at the end of the year, Richardson said she was proud of the sharp increase in state-educated UK students that Oxford now admits, as well as the smaller but significant increases in the numbers from ethnic minority or disadvantaged backgrounds.
“There has been a change. We’ve gone from 56% state school entrants to 68%. We’ve gone from 10% of kids from the most deprived backgrounds to 23%, with a commitment to hit 25% next year. The number of Black British students was at a low base but we’ve more than doubled it. And our [black and minority ethnic] students are now at 25%.
“So that’s a very significant change. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. And, I hasten to add, that is all without compromising our standards,” Richardson said.
When Richardson took office in January 2016 the university was regularly criticised for overlooking talented state school pupils, while surveys of teachers found that a high proportion wouldn’t advise their students to apply because of perceived bias.
But things have changed to such an extent that Oxford now finds itself accused on some newspaper front pages of discriminating against those from independent schools.
“I think smart students have become more eager to apply. And I think we’ve made a big effort with teachers, to encourage them to encourage their smart kids to apply, and not to accept the shibboleth that we’re not for them.
“We put a lot of effort into trying to persuade kids and their teachers that we want every smart kid who is passionate about their education to aspire to come to Oxford,” she said.
Richardson is adamant that Oxford’s admissions offers are made on the basis of ability. “We’re making decisions on the individual, not on a category, whether it’s schools or any other category. We want the smart, interesting kids with the greatest potential.”
Richardson was the first woman to be vice-chancellor of Oxford, after having been the first woman to be principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews – and she will be succeeded at Oxford by another woman, Prof Irene Tracey, fulfilling one of Richardson’s personal goals.
“I’ve been the first woman, I think, in just about every job I’ve had other than as an academic. And one of my goals is to be succeeded by a woman. And the reason for that is that if a woman is not successful in a role, there is no chance in the world that she will be succeeded by a woman.
“If a man is a success or a failure in a role, I think his gender is considered irrelevant to his success or failure. I think if a woman isn’t a success, her gender is often blamed, and it makes it much less likely that she will be succeeded by another woman. So that’s one of the goals I set myself,” Richardson said.
Richardson has other reasons to look back on her time as VC with pride – having weathered a pandemic that brought the university further international renown for its medical and social science research, most famously in the development of the Covid-19 vaccine led by the university’s Jenner Institute.
Richardson notes that Oxford had plenty of historical experience dealing with plagues and pandemics going back hundreds of years, while its “fairly byzantine system really came into its own during the pandemic”, with its more than 30 autonomous colleges looking out for their students, leaving the central university to make strategic decisions.
In Richardson’s first year the Brexit referendum that led to the UK leaving the EU was a source of potential turmoil. But Richardson – who was born and grew up in County Waterford, Ireland – said she overestimated the immediate effect Brexit would have on the university: “If I were to be completely honest, I’d have to say that the impact has been less acute than I predicted or would have thought.”
The most severe impact has been a steep fall in students from Europe. Richardson notes that before Brexit about 8% of undergraduates came from elsewhere in the EU, and that has now fallen to just 3%.
But warnings of an exodus by academics or difficulties in recruiting researchers from Europe have not come to pass – although Richardson notes “we will never know who doesn’t apply to come because of Brexit”.
Richardson now fears a slow-motion decay in links with the EU: “I suspect that, rather than the kind of immediate impact we anticipated, I think it’s just a very gradual erosion of the depth of connection with the rest of Europe, so that in 20 or 30 years time we’ll turn around and say: ‘How did we get here?’”
British politics has been a great source of disruption, with Richardson saying she has had nine education secretaries and five prime ministers in her time as vice-chancellor. And despite all five prime ministers having been Oxford graduates, Richardson said they don’t give their old university any favours.
But what explains Oxford’s remarkable track record in producing prime ministers? Since the second world war all but one British prime ministers who graduated from university went to Oxford. Richardson says it’s because of self-selection by students attracted to Oxford because they are smart and ambitious.
“When they come here, they hone their skills because of the tutorial system … they learn about marshalling arguments, critical thinking, debate, all of the skills that are helpful in public life.
“And so a tiny, tiny subset of them choose to move on to public life and they’re smart and successful. So it shouldn’t perhaps be that strange,” Richardson said.
The cavalcade of education secretaries and ministers has caused its own problems, with those wanting to make their mark adding to the “mind-numbing” pile of regulation and bureaucracy that Richardson said universities now face.
Richardson is highly critical of the Office for Students, the higher education regulator for England set up in 2018: “I cannot point to a single area in which they’ve actually improved the quality of what we do.
“They are constantly evaluating us but nobody’s evaluating the impact of all this regulation. And I think the impact is primarily to waste funds that I’d much rather be spending giving scholarships to students or hiring more teachers than people to fill out the next mind-numbing set of consultations,” she said.
The government also remains in the way of a controversy that has been running throughout Richardson’s tenure: the statue of Cecil Rhodes, the infamous imperialist, that overlooks Oxford’s High Street from its enclave in Oriel College.
The statue of Rhodes was a source of contention even before the Black Lives Matter campaign. Richardson says there is little that can be done: “We have a situation in which Oriel has said they’d like it to come down, the government won’t allow them, so there it stays.”