Keeping Access Fair: Admissions 2021

Worcester College UK Offer-holders 2021:

  • 83% from state schools
  • 35% in the most socioeconomically and educationally disadvantaged groups (Oxford University’s contextual measure Band A)
  • 27.5% from areas of low participation in Higher Education (POLAR quintiles 1&2)
  • 27.5% from areas of socio-economic disadvantage (Acorn categories 4&5)

Last year we reported the work that we had been doing to make access fairer at Worcester College. We had seen dramatic changes in our intake, resulting in the most diverse year group we had ever admitted and – more importantly – in a fairer consideration of all candidates in light of their educational and socio-economic contexts. This year we knew that we needed to sustain this work; now that all offer-holders have received their letters, we are able to report that 83% of our current offer-holders are studying at state schools, 27.5% come from areas where there are low levels of progression to Higher Education, and 27.5% come from socio-economically disadvantaged areas. This year has also seen us admit even more of the most disadvantaged students than last year: 35.2% of all of our UK offer holders this year are ‘Band A’ applicants (of the four contextual bands used by Oxford University, Band A designates those applicants who have experienced the highest levels of socio-economic and educational disadvantage).

The breakdown of our offer holders for 2021 seems at first glance very similar to our 2020 intake. As a College that saw such a huge change in the access profile of our students in 2020, sustaining fair access was as important a challenge this year as beginning it had been the year before. Fair access has been all the more difficult to sustain this year, as educational inequalities have been severely exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic, under which some groups have been disproportionately affected by the closure of schools, unequal access to online learning, unjust systems of assessment that privileged independently educated students, financial instability, and illness. The pandemic has also made our outreach work harder, curtailing our regular visits to schools and colleges to offer guidance and support to students from under-represented groups, and requiring us to learn new, virtual ways of engaging with young people (many of whom were not equipped with appropriate devices or spaces for this). These inequalities were not altogether new, and the framework we had built the previous year for assessing potential in the light of advantage and disadvantage could be adapted to mitigate them, but simply doing all of the same things as in the previous year and hoping for the same results was out of the question.

COVID-19 also forced admissions interviews online, for the first time in the university’s history, carrying the possibility of further inequalities being introduced to the admissions system. The fact that remote interviews took place in applicants’ schools or homes meant that their access to technology, the stability of their internet connections, their caring and other home responsibilities, and the appropriateness of the space available to them, all became variables in how an applicant might perform at interview – problems which were intensified for students experiencing socio-economic disadvantage. We brought all of our teams of admitting tutors together and workshopped this problem collectively, looking at data around the inequality and disadvantage created and intensified by the pandemic, and discussing strategies to minimise the effect of these growing inequalities on our admissions process. Our original principles remained central: that potential could not be expected to look the same in all applicants, and that our goal was to admit those students who showed the greatest potential to be fantastic students of their chosen subjects, in light of the advantages and disadvantages that they had experienced.

It is against this background that we can be proud of the fact that 35.2% of our 2021 UK offer holders are among the most disadvantaged students to apply to Oxford University. These ‘Band A’ students are also those who are most likely to have been adversely affected by the inequalities created by the pandemic, and by the move to online teaching, learning and admissions interviewing this year. Band A students were proportionately much more likely to be made offers at Worcester than Band D (the most advantaged) students: a differential that demonstrates that we have had some success in disentangling potential from privilege. All our offers (except those made to students who have already sat their final secondary exams) are conditional on attaining the university’s standard grades for each course. Students who are predicted to attain these grades against a background of disadvantage (intensified this year by the pandemic) are simply extraordinarily impressive applicants, who show fantastic academic potential.

As well as tackling the under-representation of socio-economically disadvantaged and state-school educated students, the College’s access goals include eradicating the under-representation of BAME students. Data on race and ethnicity is released by UCAS at a later point in the admissions cycle, and is not yet available for our current offer-holders, but we have this month received the data for our most recent intake (those who were interviewed in 2019 and began studying with us in 2020). We are delighted to report that BAME students made up just over 36% of our 2020 UK intake. Even more significantly, we had succeeded in closing the offer gap: where in the previous year BAME applicants had been only half as likely to be admitted as white applicants, in 2019/20 BAME applicants had higher offer rates than white students.

Looking to the future

The tone of this report is deliberately not overly celebratory, and we are keenly aware that so much remains to be done. We have closed up the offer gap for most BAME groups (Asian British Bangladeshi and Pakistani students and Black British African students are no longer less likely to be made offers than white students), but we need to address the very small number of applications we are receiving from particular under-represented groups, such as Black British Caribbean students, so that we can begin to correct the under-representation of these students in our intake. In order to do this we will need to look beyond the umbrella term ‘BAME’ in devising new access programmes, and focus closely on the particular groups that are most under-represented across Higher Education. There remains scope for us to increase the proportion of our UK intake who are educated at state schools: 83% is a great improvement on our past figures, but given that the overwhelming majority of students in the UK study at state schools, we have a long way to go before Worcester College’s student population can be considered to be representative of society. We also continue to work with multiple school year groups, over long-term sustained programmes, towards increasing the numbers of the most disadvantaged students applying and being made offers to study at highly selective universities, beyond Worcester College and Oxford University.

Our work to uncouple privilege and potential will need to continue, as the deepening of inequalities in the broader educational landscape and in society continues to present new barriers to fair access. In our work so far, we have managed to rebalance our College offer rates such that students from BAME groups are no longer less likely to be made offers at Worcester College than white students, and the most disadvantaged students are much more likely to be made offers than the most advantaged students. We hope that this fairer admissions landscape at Worcester will encourage applicants from under-represented groups to make applications in increasing numbers. We are delighted to have been able to sustain our commitment to fair access in a year that has seen so many barriers to it increase dramatically, and we congratulate each and every one of this year’s offer-holders on their remarkable achievements.


Dr Marchella Ward, Tinsley Outreach Fellow

Professor Laura Ashe, Tutor for Admissions

Professor Kate Tunstall, Interim Provost