Mansfield College, credit: Rob Judges Photography

How Mansfield College is leading Oxford’s charge to break down barriers to education

Alex Oscroft is an undergraduate student of History at Mansfield College.

Mansfield College isn’t one to shout its name from the rooftops. Tucked away between Wadham and the science faculties in central Oxford, it doesn’t have a raft of famous alumni or any archaic traditions to differentiate itself from the bulk of other colleges. Ask a student round Oxford if they know where Mansfield is, and you’ll likely get a confused shrug in response.

But this compact institution is a darling bud of the university’s access and outreach programme. The college has the highest intake of state school students in either Oxford or Cambridge, regularly topping 80% compared with a University average hovering around 55–60%. This year, the percentage of Mansfield’s offers that went to students from state schools was 91.4% — a higher figure than Lancaster, Leicester, or UEA.

This tremendous success has been the culmination of years of work, slowly building relationships with schools and colleges up and down the country. It’s made the college a uniquely diverse and welcoming institution, with a huge variety of people in its community. When I arrived as a nervous 18-year-old in 2015, it was an overwhelming relief to find myself in such a kind and friendly place.

Lucinda Rumsey is the tutor in charge of admissions at Mansfield, and it’s under her management that some of the largest leaps in access have been made. Helen Brooks, Access and Admissions Administrator, who has been at Mansfield for the past three years, coordinates a huge number visits to and from schools and works with the access officers at other colleges.

Mansfield’s focus on state sector access, Lucinda tells me, began with the Principal David Marquand and former Tutor for Admissions Janet Dyson in the late 1990s. Only recently elevated to the position of full college, Mansfield wanted to tap into the pool of candidates who weren’t applying to Oxford, and so set up the Sutton Trust Further Education Initiative. With its history of openness, it seemed natural to carry the ethos of the college through into actual policy.

The college can trace its drive to encourage the traditionally excluded to have an education at Oxford back to its foundation. It was established in the late 19th century with the intention of allowing nonconformists — only recently allowed into the Anglican institution — to take degrees at Oxford. Lucinda tells me that David Marquand used to describe the college’s buildings — flanking only half of the main quad — as like a pair of open arms, welcoming all who came to it. The reality of the half-finished design is that the college couldn’t afford to build a full quad, but the broad view of the college has become an iconic part of Mansfield.

The college in the 1890s (on left) and in the 1930s, credit: Mansfield College Archive.

Mansfield’s earliest members set up the Mansfield Settlement in the East End of London, providing pastoral support and legal advice for the poor and illiterate in the local community. Mansfield’s proud history of community support has translated into its success in access today.

And so, we return to Marquand — having determined the direction Mansfield should take, the college started the Access to Excellence scheme at the turn of the millennium, coordinating a group of seven colleges around Oxford in their outreach to further education and sixth form colleges. Reinforcing how ground-breaking Mansfield was in the field of access, Lucinda tells me that there was a point in about 2004 where Helen Etty, the Further Education Access Officer, was doing 49% of all the outreach work in the University, totalling 200 events a year.

Since then, the University as a whole has placed more and more investment into access schemes, but Mansfield always tries to stay ahead of the pack. In 2010, in an overhaul of how they organised outreach work, the university assigned each college an area of the country where they would coordinate access. Mansfield deliberately chose some of the more deprived areas of the country. ‘We chose a region that didn’t have very good success rates for Oxford application because we thought “we’re really good at this so we should do some work where it’s difficult to do it”,’ says Lucinda. Mansfield is currently linked with a string of boroughs in South-East London and a slice of East and North Yorkshire encompassing Doncaster, York and Hull.

David Marquand, along with his successors Diana Walford and the incumbent, Helena Kennedy, have provided leading figures for the college’s focus. Lucinda says she remembers Diana Walford hand-writing letters to individual colleges to ask them to support the further education consortium. While they have tended to leave the nitty-gritty of the work to the professionals, the media attention that the Principals have been able to shine on the college’s talents has been hugely helpful in raising its profile.

And the college has been spectacularly successful in rising to the challenge. The 91.4% figure mentioned earlier hasn’t appeared out of thin air — Mansfield has spent years refining its admissions work to provide the most level playing field possible. The links that the college has built up over the years, and the reputation it’s slowly garnered as a college with a strong state school background, mean that the percentage of first applicants — students who apply directly to the college, rather than being pooled there from another — from non-private schools normally tops 80%.

Increasingly detailed information about applicants has allowed Mansfield, and colleges across the university, to target specific groups of students much more accurately. Part of a wider uni-wide shake-up, the introduction of ‘flags’ — which allow for an immediate acknowledgement of candidates from areas with an educational or financial disadvantage — gives greater contextual information, with which their academic performance may be seen in an entirely new light. Lucinda says she often does give second interviews to candidates excelling in their context ‘because they’ve basically got a really high test score, not in a test, but in their lives’. Of the candidates given offers by Mansfield for 2017, 24% were ‘fully flagged’, with all three indicators of disadvantage.

Helen explains to me that the admissions team makes sure that tutors are fully briefed with every piece of potentially relevant information during the interview process. ‘And then when you give clever people, as tutors are, that information, they naturally think that, well, obviously the right thing to do is this,’ Lucinda continues. The access ethos is so buried in Mansfield’s framework that during the hiring process, potential tutors are asked about it. Helena Kennedy, the current Principal, has said that it’s part of what attracted her to the position.

The student body, too, is heavily involved in the college’s access work. There are schools visiting the college almost every week, and Helen’s regular emails to undergraduates always receive positive replies. She thinks that level of student involvement is ‘what we should be most proud of’ at Mansfield — a community where everyone, from the students up to the Principal, is involved in sustaining the college’s traditions and values.

Of course, nothing happens in this world without someone criticising it. The scale of Mansfield’s success with access has prompted accusations of positive discrimination, but Lucinda reinforces the point that Mansfield’s position in the Norrington table has improved as the proportion of state school students increased. ‘I want all my students to be on an equal level, and I want all of them to get in on their merits, not on how well they’ve been schooled — I want their talent to be the thing that gets rewarded.’

Access isn’t something that is unique to Mansfield by any stretch, and every college is spending more and more money and time on opening Oxford up to those who have been excluded in the past. But Mansfield has continued to lead the way in providing the best opportunities possible to students who wouldn’t have had them otherwise. As the college grace reminds us, especially with education, ‘nothing is worth having unless it is shared with others’.


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