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False perceptions keep elitism alive;Opinion

When secondary pupil Nada Farhoud urged Tony Blair two weeks ago to address Oxford's elitist image, the Prime Minister said she was right to raise the issue. But here vice-chancellor Colin Lucas (right) tells her state schools themselves erect barriers against his university

Dear Nada. As vice-chancellor of Oxford University, I read with interest your letter to the Prime Minister ("Oxford must earn taxpayers' cash", TES, October 15) about our elitist image and the "bias" in our admissions procedures - and feel I must set the record straight.

Oxford is constantly waging war against false perceptions when it comes to access issues, many of them perpetuated by a media clinging to the anachronistic Brideshead image. I am afraid your letter fell into the trap of presenting assumptions and prejudices as facts, casting us erroneously in the role of enemy to an open and fair admissions process.

Your mini survey suggests your peers are looking to Cambridge because Oxford "is biased against comprehensives like ours". However, your colleagues might care to know that for 1998 entry Oxford admitted more students from comprehensives and sixth formFE colleges than Cambridge. This year we made more offers to students from maintained schools than their independent school counterparts.

Of course you will be aware that in the full text of his letter the Prime Minister endorses our initiatives to increase the number of able state school applicants. Our mission is to select the most talented students, whatever their educational background, gender, ethnicity and social class from every region in the UK.

My personal commitment to access issues led me to establish an enquiry which reported in May this year. There is a massive commitment within the university for initiatives to widen access, and I hope you would agree that setting quotas is not the most productive way to achieve this aim. Such quotas would be inherently unfair and incompatible with our commitment to openness and fairness.

Over the last 20 years we have completely overhauled our admissions system twice (including abolishing the entrance examination in 1996) to widen access and meet head-on the accusation that our entrance system is biased towards independent schools. An independent survey asked more than 2,000 state school pupils to identify some of the obstacles to application, and we are now acting on these findings.

We remain convinced that interviewing almost all applicants, giving them the opportunity to meet tutors and prove their potential, is still the right way to select the best students. The survey shows that many applicants find our selection process in need of demystification. Our investigations highlighted the need for a more detailed statement of what to expect at interview, and we are now producing a guide for applicants.

Informing and educating prospective students and their schools about Oxford and what we have to offer is a long-term objective. Oxford hosted the first summer school for pupils from maintained schools in 1997. The scheme has more than doubled in size and led to other summer schools in Cambridge, Bristol and Nottingham.

One of our biggest problems is convincing state school teachers that they should be encouraging more of their talented pupils to apply, and we suspect this is because they themselves are unfamiliar with Oxford and its admissions process. That is why we have pioneered a scheme which brings state school teachers to Oxford, to meet tutors, learn about our courses, and find out what Oxford is really like.

And what is it like? Students benefit from over six million volumes in our central libraries, intensive teaching and tutorials, as well as sports and extra-curricular facilities. Once they leave our graduates are among the most sought after, with less than 2 per cent of recent graduates seeking employment six months after their courses ended.

I am pleased that you will be applying to Oxford to study modern history and politics. This is one of our newer courses which this year offered places to 21 students from the maintained sector compared with 13 from the independent sector. In subjects including English, law, PPE, medicine, mathematics, and physics we also offered more places to maintained school applicants.

I wish you success with your application, and hope you can help break down some of the barriers to access at your school and others like it.

Yours sincerely

Dr Colin Lucas

PS Many thanks for the suggestion that Peter Mandelson return to Oxford to help us modernise. However, we have recently passed a raft of reforms to make university governance more transparent, effective and efficient...

without his assistance.

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