In March 2002, I went to a conference at Harris Manchester college on access to Oxford for mature students. All the speakers were very positive about encouraging students on access courses to apply to Oxford.
Over the past 10 years we have only had four applicants to Oxford, two of whom were mature students. One young candidate was successful in obtaining a place, but all were offered interviews. This September a mature student joined our nine-month access course with a view to going on to become a qualified nurse. He has experienced a very difficult childhood and early education due to circumstances beyond his control. He left school with poor results and got a job as a carer to get away from home. He has continued to work in care ever since.
When I talked to him in early October about his HE application, I discovered that he has a passion for history and is very widely read. We discussed the possibility of applying for history instead of nursing and, bearing in mind my conference experience, I thought that here was just the person who could benefit from widening participation initiatives.
I phoned Mansfield college where the access co-ordinator is based and was told that she had just left and the new person would not be in place until early November. My enquiry was transferred to central applications administration and I was told that, provided his application was in by the end of the week, the student would still be considered. He applied to Mansfield and Harris Manchester.
He received a straight rejection letter and I was surprised that as a most unusual applicant he had not been offered an interview.
The following morning I spoke to the new access co-ordinator and she looked into the reasons for rejection and phoned back.
Frankly, I was amazed by the reasons given. He is a wildcard and it would be wasting their time to interview an applicant with poor GCSEs when they have so many applicants predicted straight As. The two essays he submitted were considered weak, but were obviously not viewed any differently from those of students on two-year courses who had had lots of practice in essay-writing.
His application was also judged poor as he had not tied it closely enough to the Oxford course and yet he was given two days to do it. They suggested that he might be more successful if he applied next year on completion of the access course, showing no understanding of the financial constraints mature students usually face.
I know that Oxford and Cambridge have to reject more good students than they take, and would have accepted without quibble if he had been rejected after interview, but if Oxford university is paying any more than lip service to widening participation, I think it should be prepared to at least interview potential students recommended by FE colleges whose non-traditional background makes it harder to judge their potential.