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Oxford University’s sea-change on widening access: leadership and management of a quiet transformation 

  • 21 May 2019
  • By Lucian J. Hudson

Lucian J. Hudson writes in a personal capacity. He is interim Director of Public Affairs and Communications at Oxford University, and a past Director of Communications at The Open University and Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

In Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard, chronicling upheavals in Sicilian society, one of its characters offers this strategic pragmatic counsel, “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change”.

Oxford University, the oldest English-speaking University in the world, which has itself evolved over nearly one thousand years, has today announced what its Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, calls a “sea-change” in admissions.

By planning to boost the numbers of UK students from the most under-represented backgrounds from currently 1-in-7 to 1-in-4 by 2023, Oxford will have achieved a very significant change. Even its critics, who would like Oxbridge and other Russell Group institutions to do even more on access, today acknowledge that this is an important step forward.

A year ago, Oxford took the brave step to acknowledge it had a problem on access and needed to do more. Whatever it was achieving in terms of an outstanding reputation for research and innovation, in the eyes of many, it was being held back because of the need to grasp – and be seen to grasp – the nettle of access. Some of the criticism is based on a misconception. But there are real challenges to tackle. The University of Oxford cannot offer a place to every gifted student nor solve society’s wider ills. But it can be responsive and focus on how it ensures that every student feels they have a fair chance of being accepted. 

For some years now, colleagues across the University and its Colleges have been striving to widen access. Now through two major initiatives, Opportunity Oxford and Foundation Oxford, it is scaling up its efforts and committing significant additional investment. These are based on evidence and evaluation of successful schemes at University College and Lady Margaret Hall – the empirical tradition at its best, innovation combined with rigorous assessment.

More broadly, this has been a lesson in leadership, collaboration and negotiation, the very qualities Oxford teaches and researches it has had to practise to achieve this breakthrough. With Professor Louise Richardson at the helm, working with key colleagues across the University, Oxford has needed to deal with the implications for strategy, finance, policy and delivery. This is an institution that takes the practicalities of implementation very seriously – even though that can prove frustrating. 

Relevant to the exercise of effective change leadership is appreciating that it is not enough to specify technical changes but to build a culture that embraces change. For change to be accepted in an education institution, it has to be properly understood, owned and resourced.

Some see it as a weakness that power at Oxford is so distributed, thereby making it more difficult to achieve transformational change. But I would argue the precise opposite: sustainable change – change that actually sticks – is achieved through commitment from the ground-up and not just the top-down, by working through the myriad of risks and challenges, and taking into account a range of experience and expertise. Oxford is a most complex and sophisticated institution with world-leading academic departments and individual Colleges priding themselves on their relative autonomy and special character. That is a source of strength if an institution can pull together in pursuit of a common purpose. 

Oxford’s purpose is a resolute commitment to academic excellence while also recognising that diversity is integral to Oxford’s policies and processes. In the words of Alan Rusbridger, the Principal of LMH, “Creating a more level admissions playing-field is not dumbing down, but helping up.” Sir Ivor Crewe, Master of University College [and Chair of HEPI’s Trustees], argues that the programme that his College has pioneered has demonstrated that it is possible to make significant strides towards diversifying the social and economic profile of the undergraduate body without in any way diluting standards of admission or academic expectations and appraisal.

These strong commitments will be closely scrutinised in years to come, not least as British society wrestles with what it most wants to be and universities strive in one respect at least to be universal, as well as true to their other traditions. As Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

1 comment

  1. Jon Hall says:

    Amazing Lucian, as always!

    To sustain such a vital change will take a generation of academic and pedagogic investment in schools, to provide opportunity where currently only aspiration exists.

    The mechanisms, technologies and content are already there. What is missing is a nationwide coalition of the willing, and the true recognition of this change’s importance to our nation’s future demonstrated by expressed political will.

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