Twenty years ago my wife Julia and I decided to support and work with Mansfield College, Oxford, the college I had attended between 1978 and 1982.
We knew that for Mansfield College to succeed it would need to aim for something that would set it apart from other Oxford Colleges. At the same time as we entered the 21st century, we felt that it was critical that access to the very best higher education was available to as wide a social group as possible.
As entrepreneurs and business people, we believe that a diverse student population representing the make up of society is essential to ensure that the business world is equally diverse, and it is only when it is diverse that the very best ideas, the greatest innovations, and the most workable solutions for society as a whole will emerge.
You can have a worthy cause but if it lacks clear, measurable objectives — like a business vision without a business plan — it will fail. You need to consider many factors: how it will be run operationally, what the governance structure will look like, and if the funding model is sustainable.
We wanted to introduce the same rigours of business and deal making to the Mansfield campaign that we apply to our businesses. We needed something that was sustainable and a proposition that made sense to other people not just to us.
The vision we strove towards centred on Mansfield leading the way in creating educational opportunities at Oxford for students from all backgrounds and not just focussing on pupils that most often came from the private education system. From this, the Access to Excellence campaign was born.
As with all businesses, campaigns, proposals and projects that I come across, I always consider what is the reward? If you get it right, what is going to happen? And what is the measurement of success? Mansfield was given a social objective, set by my wife and I, that at least 75% of students that came to the college would come from state schools (grammar schools being defined as non-state).
That number was seen by many at the time as a complete impossibility, a pipe dream given how Oxford looked in terms of the percentage of state school admissions back then.
However, two decades later and admissions to Mansfield stand at 96% of current first years (2019/20 intake) being state school, and a 91% state school intake for the coming academic year (2020/21). In the 2019/20 intake, 31.1% of students identified as BAME: Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic.
In addition, over 40% of Mansfield’s offer holders come from the most disadvantaged educational and socio-economic backgrounds in the UK, compared to 15% of the Oxford applicant pool. Additionally, and possibly most importantly, Mansfield is now seen as the poster child of Oxford colleges for achieving social diversity and was ranked in the top 5 colleges in Oxford for degree results in 2019.
Again, this level of academic success was something that many people told us would be totally impossible to achieve if access to Oxford was broadened.
But why is this important to society as a whole? For us, it was far more than just a nice social box tick. We believe passionately that this increased access to higher education is critical for the wider business world, the economy, and indeed social stability and prosperity – society writ large.
If you don’t have a mixed workforce at the highest levels representing a wide range of backgrounds in every area of life, whether in politics, business, media, entertainment or the legal profession, you will not get a broad range of views. You then will marginalise whole chunks of the population and you will not have a country working together, but rather one pulling itself apart.
By giving more people access to Oxford, it means that on graduating and finding jobs, these different people with different, dynamic backgrounds, experiences and perspectives will find their way into the workplace to improve everybody’s lot.
Two decades on from beginning this journey with Mansfield, Julia and I are honoured to contribute to the work that Mansfield began when it was founded over 150 years ago. It is a small step along the road to a better society, but one we are proud to be associated with.