The Myth of Social Mobility: Oxbridge Recruitment as a Failure of Governance.

In the current febrile atmosphere in Westminster, a recurring story appears to have slipped under the radar.

The Sutton Trust – a charity focusing upon social mobility –  published a damning indictment  about the entrenched nature of English society.

The Charity has levelled the accusation that Oxford and Cambridge universities are so socially exclusive that they recruit more students from eight ‘top’ schools than from almost 3,000 English state schools put together.

Drawing on data between 2015 and 2017, the Trust’s analysis showed that pupils from eight schools filled just over 1,300 Oxbridge places.

In contrast, the other 1,200 places were filled by students from 2,900 other schools.

Underpinning this disparity, the report goes on to highlight that:

  • Only 7% of all UK pupils attend private schools
  • Only 18% of those taking A-levels are at private school
  • 34% of Oxbridge applications are from private school
  • 42% of Oxbridge places go to private school pupils

Rereferring to the Trust’s report, Oxford’s Professor Martin Williams told the BBC that the University needed to make renewed efforts to address the situation.

Despite the headline this is not a new story.

Earlier in 2018, David Lammy MP  drew on significant data contained in Oxford’s own admissions Oxford’s admissions report.

The report highlighted that the proportion of Oxford students identifying as black and minority ethnic was 18% in 2017, in contrast to the UK university average of 25%.

Lammy highlighted that the admission’s report also indicated that one college – Corpus Christi – which has around 350 students, admitted only one black student resident in the UK in its intakes between 2015-2017.

After he instigated a Freedom of Information request in 2017, Lammy pulled no punches when accused the university of “social apartheid”.

Lammy’s request showed:

  • 10 out of 32 Oxford colleges did not award a single place to any black British pupil with A-levels in 2015;
  • Four-fifths of students from England and Wales accepted at Oxbridge between 2010 and 2015 had parents with top professional and managerial jobs;
  • regional bias, with more offers made to Home Counties pupils than the whole of northern England.


Speaking to the BBC’s Sean Coughlin, the Education Secretary Damien Hinds added to the debate by suggesting that: “Whilst potential and talent is evenly spread, the opportunities to make the most of it sometimes aren’t”.

Hinds continued by making it was clear that he wanted universities to work closely with Government to ensure that they were “…open to everyone who has the potential, no matter their background or where they are from”.

A Failure of governance?

Clearly, these reports make stark reading.

If Oxbridge is to be taken at its word, and that it is attempting to redress this imbalance, why is it proving so problematic to do so?

One possible explanation is a lack of mature governance.

The Good Governance Institute (GGI) – drawing on work led by academics at Nottingham Trent University – have produced a Maturity Matrix for Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) governing bodies.

The matrix is practical, developmental tool which provides a structured means of assessing organisational performance against a range of indicators of good governance.

When assessing Oxbridge’s governance, it seems clear that there is significant room for development.

For example, a fundamental aspect of mature HEI governance is that it considers the culture of both the institution and board as a regular part of formal business.

Moreover, a Published Governance Code of Conduct should set out institutional values and behaviour expected of everyone involved in the governance of the institution.

Crucially, board members should be inducted to understand their role in setting cultural standards for the institution

A board that is excelling, is able to evidence and direct the institution’s reputation for ethical integrity and advocate clear values amongst peers in the HE sector and more widely.

Against these criteria, it seems that not only are Oxbridge failing to model excellent governance, they are even failing to model fundamental governance.

If Oxbridge is truly committed to addressing admissions inequity, then governance must take a more active role in holding the executive to account.

Unfortunately, the education sector – like many others – has not had a particularly proud track record in such an endeavour.

However, if elite institutions such as Oxbridge are to cease to be, as David Lammy suggests, “a bastion of white, middle class, southern privilege” then governing bodies have a pivotal role to play.

Oxbridge might do well to refer to research commissioned by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) exploring innovative governance.

The FETL research identified that innovative governance is ‘direction setting’ rather than ‘rear view’.

Innovative and excelling governance takes a forward looking proactive approach toward setting its core values and direction.

In contrast, rear view is constantly ‘looking over its shoulder’ and reacting to events.

Taking a stand through innovative, mature and excelling governance that understands the vital intersections between culture and identity can lead to change. If the governing bodies of elite universities continue to ignore what their own data are revealing regarding admissions inequity, then they will continue to be both rear view and reactive.

One would hope that rather than looking over its shoulder, this governance would be direction setting, proactive and innovative.

Failing to do this will mean that Oxbridge colleges will continue to risk social mobility being no more than an illusion in their cloistered halls.

 Andrew Clapham 












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