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  • Niya Sasha

How Should Oxford Respond To Its Surplus Of Applicants?

Oxford University is the top-ranking university in the 2022 League tables and this is reflected in its requirement of high grades and academic excellence. In 2020, the university received almost 7 times more applications than available places and 6 more applications than graduate places to available places according to the official Oxford admissions data. This demonstrates high amounts of excess demand for the higher education services provided by Oxford University and therefore also demonstrates the basic economic problem of the allocation of resources.

The acceptance rate of applications received is the lowest in the UK at 21.8%. This means that the supply is incredibly rationed due to the disproportionate and extreme scarcity of supply in comparison to demand.

When analysing the fairness of a system, it must be considered that fair is a subjective term and will, to a great extent, depend on the view and opinions of an individual. Therefore, in this situation, the stakeholders which include the labour market, government, prospective students and the university itself will all vary in their scrutinization of the Oxford admissions process due to misalignment of goals and ideals.

From the view of the government and labour markets, whose main aims are to boost the economy by increasing the supply of labour and therefore increasing national productivity and output, this system may seem to be unfair. This is due to the fact that, instead of increasing the total supply of labour, it is simply specialising and increasing the value of the students that are already arguably of the highest quality and therefore already of high employability in the workforce whereas they could use their resources to target the less academically advanced students to increase their employability and job opportunities later in life.

Conversely, as a third party in this situation who assesses the positive and negative externalities provided by the university's selective administration process, the government would find that there are also benefits to the university’s admissions system. As the university provides opportunities to high achieving students, it allows them to advance to some of the highest income job opportunities, represented by how Oxford has the second-highest post-graduate salary according to a study by the SES (student employment services). This means that the high-income graduate students are able to grow in their selected fields and therefore contribute in high quantities to the economy with their higher disposable income and consumption while also increasing tax revenue due to the fact that they will be in higher tax brackets.

The university itself is more likely to see the process as fair as it is aligned to their aims related to the student demographics. They assess and improve the process so that it is as close to their ideal as they have control over it, therefore it would accommodate the best needs of the university. Furthermore, universities wish for students who are passionate and prove their dedication to their studies which is commonly reflected in smarter students, measured by their higher grades. In relation to this, universities aim to produce the best quality students and grades from their graduates and for this to occur, it is beneficial for the university to maintain selecting the most intelligent and adept students to study with them. Accepting strong students also help maintain a good image and reputation within the higher education market. These private benefits of the system may outweigh the externalities in their assessment, therefore providing a positive view on the fairness of the course.

However, the process also creates an opportunity cost as the students forgone in the admissions process would all have had potential contributions to the university, meaning that even in selecting the most academically advanced students, Oxford loses many potential benefits, such as some non-academic qualities for instance creativity, artistic and practical skills.

Conversely, prospective students’ views on the administrative process will be incredibly different due to the fact that their priorities are more tailored to what they individually wish to achieve and gain from higher education rather than the larger scale economic impacts, or the universities’ best interests. This means that even within the student body there may be disparities between the more highly educated and high income students and low income or socio-economically challenged students. This leads to many believing that the system is unfair as it does not provide the same opportunities to students of a similar level of ambition or dedication if said student has reduced examination skills. Conversely, they may have their priorities aligned closer to the universities putting more weight on their grades and therefore they may find the system fairer although this is more commonly found among higher class students.

Due to the fact that Oxford is such a prestigious and revered university, the graduates gain a social standing and a sense of respectability from being part of the community. Since, around 80% of Oxford students had parents with top professional and managerial jobs with numbers growing, according to the evening standard, many of the students would have already been considered part of high society by association. Meaning that social inequality gaps are growing wider with the administration process only further magnifying the privilege gained by the already “socially elite”.

Correspondingly, there are also a range of economic benefits and opportunities provided when attending Oxford university which, due to the administration process, are limited to a small number of students. 73.2% of enrolled students in 2020 had an average household income of £42,875 according to the Oxford Admissions statistics, which is £12,975 more than the UK average, representing the already present economic inequality between Oxford’s students and the rest of the UK even before the added effects of the university. Said effects include the employability of the graduates and the higher average salaries that they receive. Since Oxford is ranked 2nd in the UK for employability by the global universities employability index, the students receive explicit benefits after graduating as they will be in higher demand in the labour market and therefore have more choice when selecting jobs and pursuing their careers. This effect is most evident in the study of law where the university has a very large influence on earnings as students on average earn £9,000 more than other highly respected universities such as Cambridge and therefore even more than other non-Russell group university graduates as shown in the Graduate outcomes (LEO): subject by provider, 2016 to 2017 by the government. Similarly, as stated on the Oxford site’s admissions statistics, over 91% of students are employed or in further study 6 months after leaving the university which is 5% higher than the average for graduates and 20% higher than non-graduates according to government statistics. All of these economic benefits of going to Oxford exacerbate inequality due to the fact that these opportunities are only accessible to the students selected in the admissions process which we have already stated to be predominantly economically advantaged already.

Despite the distribution of students within Oxford and the administration process seeming to contribute to economic and social inequality, the university is aware of its imbalanced demographics and has been aiming to improve and target the imbalance of students from varying backgrounds. Although the simple solution to the scarcity of oxford places would seem to be simply expanding supply, it is not as feasible to do this while keeping the quality of education, facilities and prestige at the same standard due to the fact that the expansion could cause diseconomies of scale or make the university very hard to manage. This, however, would still be an ideal response to the disproportional demand to supply despite the potential costs and expansion would decrease the pressure on the admission process as long as the expansion is performed on a reasonable scale. however, by exploring other methods to increase equality and opportunities for a wider proportion of students, Oxford has taken a range of approaches to the issue. Derived from this is “one of the most generous financial support packages for students from the lowest income band of any uni in the UK” according to the Oxford site. This helps to minimise the impact of coming from a low-income household and prevent students from disadvantaged backgrounds from being dissuaded from applying by the fees and therefore potentially decreasing the inequality found within its students. Similarly to this, Oxford provides Crankstart Scholarship bursaries and added support so that their spread of students is more equal and based on grades and intelligence only. Their approaches have seemed to improve the universities demographics throughout the years as seen by the 10.6% increase in students from state schools, now making up over half of the total enrolled students, along with the 7.7% increase of students that are classified as socio-economically disadvantaged. These improvements are evidence of development within the university and demonstrate that they should be following and progressing along similar paths to respond to the scarcity and inequality within the admissions process by not just expanding supply but expanding the reach of these places to a larger number and range of students.

In conclusion, the dilemma caused by the demand being disproportionately high in comparison to supply leads to inevitable opportunity costs and a share of students not being provided the same opportunities. Due to the fact that Oxford selects their students based on intelligence, said opportunities which could boost students’ economic growth are provided to students which are already of a high academic achievement level which widens the inequality gap unavoidably. Even though Oxford has a range of tactics to try to prevent the selection process from being “unfair”, the demographics of the enrolled students are not entirely equal, however since fairness is a subjective and quantitative measure, it is very hard to put an actual value on the measurement and therefore hard to decide what is fair or not when allocating resources in cases such as this.

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