Does Oxbridge Deserve You?

JAMES ABBOTT-THOMPSON tells you why Oxbridge are getting too big for their boots.

Apparently most state school teachers do not encourage their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge. How should we respond to this outrageous behaviour?

A recent study by the Sutton Trust showed that only 44% of teachers would encourage their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge and most thought that the proportion of state school students at Oxbridge was less than 30%.

My gut response is that teachers should not pre-emptively exclude worthwhile options from their pupils’ consideration, and they ought to do their research on elite universities before giving out junk advice.

A recent paper published by the Admissions Research Working Group established that the proportion A*AA results at A level achieved by state school students is about 65%. The proportion of accepted students from the state sectors is 59%, so in statistical terms we are talking about a few percentage points but in broad terms the issue is one of institutional attitude.

Why, on further reflection, should state school teachers recommend Cambridge (or Oxford) to their brightest students? It is not as if the institution is concerned about state sector participation in any meaningful sense.

Alison Richard, our former vice-chancellor, once said that she does not see universities as ‘engines for promoting social justice’, and I have no doubt that she means it.

Cambridge does not actively discriminate against the socially disadvantaged, but it is fundamentally indifferent towards the demographic make-up of its student body.

My own college, Trinity, has the lowest proportion of state school students of any Oxbridge college (ironically it is probably one of the cheapest and most generous places to study in the UK).

This is because it cares only for the academic pedigree of its students, and is willing to accept whoever turns up with the best grades and the most compelling interview chat. It cares about its position in the Tompkins table, the international renown and research output of its academics, and its treasured prestige.

Access, however, is a peripheral consideration, something to sigh about ruefully. Discerning the rough diamonds from the highly polished turds is too much hard work.

This is one extreme of the spectrum, but it is an attitude reflected to a greater or lesser extent across the Colleges. Barring one or two exceptions, their priorities are the same.

Cambridge has spent millions of pounds on numerous charming access initiatives, but this is borne out of political necessity against a backdrop of increasingly aggressive noises from government about state school admissions. But the numbers today are not dissimilar to what they were ten years ago when the state schools admissions rate was 53%. Fundamentally, I think the University is content with the status quo.

One of my tutors once told me that when she makes someone an offer she expects them to take it. But why should they? In these circumstances, why should every brilliant state school student be encouraged to study here? The University doesn’t really care about them, so why should they care about the University.

It smacks of arrogance and institutional self-regard to assume that Oxbridge has the right of first refusal on every talented state school student. Why shouldn’t their teachers recommend economics at LSE, physics at Imperial or creative writing at UEA instead?

Simply because some teachers and pupils do not subscribe to the orthodox view that Oxbridge is the pinnacle, the sine qua non, the nec plus ultra of academia, it should not spark outrage. Good for them.

  • lawyer…

    "A recent paper published by the Admissions Research Working Group established that the proportion of state sector students getting A*AA at A level is about 65%. The proportion of accepted students from the state sectors is 59%, so in statistical terms we are talking about a few percentage points but in broad terms the issue is one of institutional attitude."

    I'm no mathmo, but isn't it incorrect to compare these two figures?

    • definitely dodgy

      You're right. Plus the statistics don't even look right. 65% of students get A*AA? Either way, it looks like it's supposed to be 65% of all A level takers, whereas it's 59% of people accepted to Oxbridge. But it's not clear.

      • Caian

        It demonstrates the point perfectly well.
        It's saying that 65% of the students who make grades good enough for Cambridge are from the state sector, yet only 59% of students into Cambridge are from state schools.
        This demonstrates the fact that there is a disparity between the two figures, which, in principle, should be the same. However it's not as great of a disparity as would be expected with the Sutton Trust statistic "only 44% of teachers would encourage their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge"; hence the "only a few percentage points" part following the statistics.

      • not so dodgy

        No, it means that 65% of those who get A*AA are from state schools. You can compare that number to the proportion of state school students at Oxbridge, which is 59%.

        So there's "only" a 6% differential between the two numbers, indicating that "of students who achieve the required grades, state schools and $$$ schools make up roughly the same proportions as Oxbridge does."

        So assuming that all Oxbridge students get A*AA, the proportions are not as far off as previously assumed and the "bias" in the educational system is at earlier levels than at university.

        Though that being said, there's a lot of potential for bias with this statistic…

      • not so sure

        I think they are saying 65% of people who get A*AA are from state schools, while only 59% of people who get into cambridge are from state schools. WIth the rather dodgy assumption that people get into Cambridge based only on their exam success (i.e. achieving A*AA), this seems like an ok comparison to me

    • Another Lawyer

      It's been a while since I did Stats (GCSE!), but I think you're right.

      If we take as a given that you need A*AA to be admitted, only 65% of state school kids achieve this – as evidenced by the first statistic. If Cambridge admits 59% from state schools, the proportion of "A*AA state leavers" who end up at Cambridge is 59% OF 65% (0.59 x 0.65) = roughly 38%.

      As an aside, the flaws in this article genuinely made me facepalm.

    • doooooodggyyyy

      you don't need to be a mathmo to figure this out. though written ambiguously, the sentence probably ought to read: of all A*AA grades, 64% are awarded to state school students, whereas the make-up of Cambridge is only 59% state school students. Ergo, assuming that you get into Cambridge with an A*AA and some fancy interview chat, a relatively small proportion of state school students with A*AA do not go to Cambridge.

    • yeah

      It must mean 65% of state school oxbridge applicants achieve their offers, but a few of these end up declining to take them up?

      It cannot be that 65% of state school pupils achieve A*AA, or that of all the state school pupils who achieve A*AA go to oxbridge as lots will have simply over achieved on an AAA offer to study somewhere else.

      Either way it is a terrible and confusing use of statistics

    • CTRL+C, CTRL+V

      "A recent paper published by the Admissions Research Working Group established that the PROPORTION OF A*AA RESULTS AT A LEVEL ACHIEVED BY STATE SCHOOL STUDENTS IS ABOUT 65%. The proportion of accepted students from the state sectors is 59%, so in statistical terms we are talking about a few percentage points but in broad terms the issue is one of institutional attitude"

      How did you manage to misquote with copy and paste?

    • Adam

      There are LOADS of people who go to state school in this country, and apparently 65% of them get A*AA.

      So hypothetically, let's say there are 1,000,000 people getting A-levels from a state school each year. That means that 650,000 of them get A*AA.

      Many fewer people go to private school, let's say 100,000 people get A-levels each year from private school. They've probably got a higher percentage of people getting A*AA, so maybe 80,000 of them get A*AA.

      Assuming that the people applying from state and private school have the same "interview chat" then the proportions of people getting into Cambridge from state vs. private school should be 65:8, which means about 90% of people going to Cambridge should be from state school.

      Basically, this guys maths is totally wrong because it's not just about the percentages, it's about the ABSOLUTE number of people getting A*AA grades.

      • A mathmo

        These replies are painful to read.

        It just says that, at two high tiers of academic achievement, the acceptance to Oxbridge, and getting A*AA, the relative proportions of state:independent pupils achieving these are about the same. Obviously 65% of state A-level students do not get A*AA (the exams system isn't THAT broken).

        So basically, the issue isn't Oxbridge, it's the educational attainment during secondary school.

  • Well…

    You read Law. The Cambridge course is the best in the country. So if your tutor makes an applicant an offer, I don't think it's too bad for her to assume that that person will probably want to come here.

    • also

      particularly because there is most likely only an extremely small number of people who apply to Cambridge and then end up not wanting to go after all.

      • Elly Nowell


        • actually

          Nowell wanted to go to Cambridge; she rejected the other place (before they had a chance to reject her…)

  • meritocracy

    "[Cambridge] is fundamentally indifferent towards the demographic make-up of its student body."

    As it should be! The University is a meritocracy. It doesn't matter where the students come from, only that they are the most intelligent bunch possible. So if that means that one year it's 100% private school pupils who are accepted and the next year it's 100% state school pupils who get in, who cares?

    • Missing the point?

      I think it's clear that the article argues that grades aren't a good way to measure ability – highly polished turd, rough diamond etc. Meritocracy =/= letting those with the best grades automatically get in qua people with good grades.

      • getting the point

        what missing the point said

  • Erm…

    What point are you trying to make in this article? You say that the University is indifferent to the state/public split, but then ask (rhetorically, I presume) why a state school pupil should accept their offer if "the University doesn't really care about them".

    If Cambridge is admitting people strictly on the basis of academic achievement rather than the type of school attended, surely this undermines your argument that it doesn't care about pupils from state schools? The fact that they're state is immaterial!

  • Angry Otter

    Fundamentally though, there are lots people (especially but by no means only) at state schools who are convinced Oxbridge "isn't for them" or that they don't have the ability or "upbringing" – that's why the University has hundreds of staff and students working so hard to correct wrong impressions and exaggerations. I don't want to be personal but sometimes they lack the confidence or ambition that someone who has gone to one of the top boys' private schools in the country and has a MP as a parent does.. Teachers encouraging people to apply to Cambridge doesn't involve saying it's better – it's just trying to give them the confidence and boost that some of us were lucky to have in the first place.

  • Over 50%

    of teachers is not "some teachers".

    No-one suggests you should just arbitraily go to oxbride as it's "the best", and that's not the issue at all. The point is that they should encourage their students to Imperial/LSE as well as Oxbridge…

    Any one teacher probably has several students under his/her tutelage that could be potential oxbridge applicants, so if lss them half of the actually encourage them to give it a try it's obviously a bad time.

  • Bill O'Reilly

    This is a really stupid and pointless argument if ever I saw one, do not go into journalism. The question you pose is- why should state school teachers recommend Oxbridge when there are viable alternatives, or at least, why should we be insulted that they don't?
    This is a dry, dry question and smacks of ignorance. Everyone knows that Oxbridge is generally ranked no.1 academically and the social and reputation enhancing advantages that attach to attending here are immeasurable. You should know this already, you do know this, so why write 600 words on it?

    • Clareite

      The reputation can't be denied, but surely the legitimacy and benefit of the whole ambit of academic ranking could be called into question?

      • But that’s…

        …a completely different question.

    • MacFarlane

      I think you will find that it is actually only 574 words….bellend

    • not sure if serious

      "Everyone knows that Oxbridge is generally ranked no.1 academically and the social and reputation enhancing advantages…"

      You realise that teenagers often choose a university for reasons other than its place in some league table? Like, I dunno, how much fun they think they might have, what the nightlife's like etc. Also, I sincerely hope the bit about social and reputation enhancing advantages is a joke because seriously what does that even mean?

      • Johnian

        Well, my club for one only lets in Oxbridge graduates.

      • Bill O'Reilly

        Please don't plead ignorance and pretend that you don't know what that means. Reputation in the sense of future prospects and socially in the sense that being an Oxbridge graduate carries a certain prestige. Do what you want with that prestige, get promoted quicker or use it as a bad chat up line, but to deny it exists is misguided.

        Regarding teenagers choice of Uni- this argument was framed in the sense that other serious academic alternative exists and that formed the basis of my response. If you want the best night life, Cambridge isn't nearly your best option, again this should be obvious.

        Interestingly, teachers have the idea they should advise on the basis of academic credentials rather than nightlife. I say interestingly, this again should have been obvious to you.

        • not sure if serious

          My guess is you're still a student. I think that after you graduate you shouldn't expect too much prestige or to get promoted quicker just because you went to Cambridge. Honestly, writing Cambridge on your CV isn't as big a deal as you seem to think.

  • what a shame

    By ending the article with those Latin quotes, you merely give credence to the state school teachers who believe their smart students would not fit in at Cambridge.

  • disagree

    I love being at Cambridge. Hence I would encourage any bright person to apply – not because it's "the best" in terms of exam results but because I feel I've had the chance to have a stellar education here. This is not to say that other universities do not also do this, but if people rule out Oxbridge as "not my kind of place", in my mind they're missing out on the experience I've been lucky enough to have. I think you're confusing the arrogance the Directors of Studies may have in assuming everyone will choose Oxbridge over any other university with (as you perceive it) arrogance in thinking everyone capable of getting the grades could get something out of Oxbridge education. As far as I'm concerned, the latter's just true.

  • Wait a minute

    As someone who went (I think) to City of London School and accepted an offer at Cambridge, I'm not sure you're the best placed person to comment on how brilliant it might be for a state school student to go to another university.

  • SO


  • Hmm…

    A bit rich this article – suggesting that Oxbridge should be in favour of state school pupils when his (far left Labour MP) mother was so against him being one that she sent him to private school despite her being opposed to them existing.

    • Gem
    • voice of reason

      Whilst it might be fair to suggest that Mr Thompson is somewhat ignorant of the state-school side of the fence, that does not mean he is not entitled to hold an opinion (as it happens I disagree, see my main post below).

      I also think it severely unfair to judge him for an educational decision made on his behalf by his mother. Furthermore, it is unfair to judge the mother either: she is just prioritising the best interests of her son over her own political beliefs. Had I in her position, I would not have hesitated to do exactly the same.

      • Voice of Reason-er

        Actually, from wiki:

        Her son contacted a radio phone-in to say that his mother was following his own wishes: "She's not a hypocrite, she just put what I wanted first instead of what people thought," he told LBC. He added that he had wanted to go private rather than attend a local state school in Abbott's Hackney constituency.

        His choice, it seems.

        • but

          he was a child though

  • DAMN


  • A "talented" one

    I for one would like to see an equivalent article written by one of us so called ‘talented’ state school students.

    “charming access initiatives”?

    “Discerning the rough diamonds from the highly polished turds”?

    “talented state school pupils”?

    Why must “state school pupils” always be preceded by a qualifier? Why doesn’t this article consider them on a par with private school pupils? I don’t see any “talented private school pupils” here – because it seems that your opinion is that that is a prerequisite and that they are all talented. Honestly James, it’s quite clear that you yourself were privately educated because I can’t imagine anyone that was state educated having quite such a condescendingly arrogant attitude. Is that something they taught you at City of London?

    The implicit point you seem to be trying to make is that talented state school students are oddities. That they’re like four leaf clovers, and should be plucked as selectively, because, who knows, the admissions tutor might just get lucky!
    Without access schemes, the spirit pervading this university would be that those that come from the best schools make the best students, and therefore a cycle of doom is entered into in which only the likes of Cameron and his Etonian front bench are ever admitted.

    What your article fails to tackle is that Cambridge *doesn’t* just check the best interview chat and results in order to deduce its students. Without access schemes, the student who gets 5A*s from the school where no one else got any at all (and these schools do exist) wouldn’t be given a second look – does the fact that, despite having terrible schooling, they have studied and are talented beyond the realms of their cohort count for 0 in their favour?

    Everyone should be given an equal chance to study at Oxbridge. Your article seems to masquerade under your own impression that you’re giving that point of view, but you’re not. Without the right encouragement, students that are talented enough to be at Oxbridge but are never even encouraged to consider it as a possibility simply would not think of it. That means that the socially elite from the elite schools with the elitist entry policy (read, £££) would be the only ones ever admitted to the elite intellectual institution that is this university. That is not giving everyone an equal chance. I myself came from a school at which my personal A* grades were responsible for 40% of the entire school’s total that year – and it wasn’t a small school. We were not encouraged to apply to Oxbridge. We were discouraged because we didn’t ‘belong’ there, and there was never any chance of someone from a school like ours of getting in there. Is that giving me an equal right, based on my equal merit, to study here? No it is not. That’s why I work with the access office to go back to schools like mine and others in the area to talk to teachers and pupils and make them feel that Oxbridge IS a possibility.

    I hate to say this, James, but it would be much more interesting if you had written this article from the point of view of a black student at Cambridge, about black students being allowed to apply. It’s almost exactly the same scenario. Many aren’t encouraged to apply because the majority of black students are typically studying at city schools with relatively poor academic results. That is not being racist on my part, that is describing a statistical general trend. If nothing should be done about that, and if the current percentage of black students at Cambridge is satisfactory in the long term (and in my opinion, it is not) then this article is fundamentally correct. Otherwise, I urge you to reconsider your point of view.

    • Congratulations

      Well done you

      • Perspective

        He/she certainly put a lot more effort into his comment than you did…

  • Reason

    4 quick points.

    1. The obvious conclusion that you imply in the first half of your article is that oxbridge should care about the demographic make up of its student body. This in turn implies that you advocate some form of positive discrimination. Yet you make no arguments to support this actually quite controversial position.

    2. You make some very serious accusations about the access program: that the university efforts are deliberately half hearted. You then (inexplicitly) contradict yourself by admitting that the difference between the percentage of state school students and your perceived "fair value" of 65% has halved in the 10 years since the program has been running from 12% to 6% (using your figures of 59% and 53%). You should also note that the difference between these two values (65% and 59%) could also be explained by the fact that 19% of teachers would never encourage a pupil to apply.

    3. The conclusions you draw about the value judgements of teachers from the Sutton trust report rely on large assumptions, and are, I would argue, erroneous. You fail to mention for instance that 31% of teachers (p5 second paragraph of the report) do not know that oxbridge applications should be made earlier indicating a compete unfamiliarity with the process. This is significantly more than the proportion of teachers who would never encourage a pupil to apply. This, coupled with the huge underestimation of state school pupil numbers, indicates not the considered value judgement but ignorance. It should also be noted that the questions asked in the survey (see appendix 1) are completely unsuited to determining teachers value judgements anyway.

    Finally addressing your point about the value judgement, that they don't consider oxbridge the pinnacle of university education in the uk therefore "good for them". You answered it yourself. Cambridge is one of the best universities in the world precisely because "because it cares only for the academic pedigree of its students, and is willing to accept whoever turns up with the best grades and the most compelling interview chat. It cares about … the international renown and research output of its academics, and its treasured prestige." and is "one of the cheapest and most generous places to study in the UK". These are strong reasons to accept it, a university with strong meritocratic principles. You clearly did.

    • xkcd

      Is that you, Summer Glau?

      • This article

        … is problematic.

    • Misnomer Hater

      Those reasons were not quick…

  • Stirrer

    But regardless of what their teachers tell them, the state school pupils that believe all the wild rumours about Cambridge without actually bothering to find out for themselves shouldn't be getting a place here anyway. You need an inquiring mind, independent thought, etc – if you need to be spoon-fed via some 'Access' scheme, you'd be better off doing Film Studies at Hull with all your state school mates.

    • Ok,

      Then lets not tell any private school kids about oxbridge and find out how many make it here.

      • Private School Kid

        Well that's pretty much the case – no-one from a Cambridge Access scheme came to my school to say how great Cambridge is and none of my teachers told me I should apply. But with a bit of initiative and Google, I made it here. It wasn't that tricky was it?

        • No idea

          The academic and social environment of students at private schools and students at challenging (not excellent) state schools are worlds apart. Even if you weren't explicitly hassled into applying to Cambridge, don't pretend that you plucked your academic self-confidence, excellent exam results and the idea of Cambridge from nowhere like you had no support at all. It's insultingly ignorant.

    • State Educated

      Whilst I resent the end of your last line, in general I agree. When choosing a university I ordered somewhere in the region of 30 different uni prospectuses (I refuse to use the plural 'prospecti') and spent hours and hours researching all my options online. The information is in the public domain and if you can't be fagged to look at the facts and you just accept the lies thrown at you by the left wing press then no, you probably shouldn't be in Cambridge.

      • Obnoxious Latin

        The plural of "prospectus" is "prospectus." (4th declension). Otherwise I agree entirely.


    you may be able you to use some pretentious latin quote to finish your article… but you'll never be Union President!

    • Roman Empire

      Could be President of the Latin Society though…

  • Jack WIlls 4 lyf

    If Cambridge is indifferent to background, then by your logic, what is to attract privately educated students?

    Sentio aliquos togatos contra me conspirare.

  • naww
  • Worrying

    The title of this article concerns me. With the rest of the author's prevailing attitude, it would seem to suggest that state school kids are a punishment to Oxbridge; what has it done to deserve them?!

  • Toff
  • umm

    I think people assume everyone wants to go to Cambridge because it's top of the league table. Sorry but a lot of 17 year olds just don't think that way and never will. They might know Oxbridge is not as posh as the stereotype but they might think that it's all work with no social life. Some would rather live in a big city like Manchester or Birmingham.

  • voice of reason

    Mr Thompson's arguments are flawed because they make the following implicit assumptions:

    *state school pupils ("rough diamonds") always come across weaker in interview than private school pupils ("highly polished turds"), so an interviewer needs to make a special effort to identify academic potential.

    *state school pupils want special treatment, and feel abandoned if they allegedly do not get it ("The University doesn’t really care about them").

    *state school pupils feel uncomfortable with the thought of meritocracy ("[Cambridge] is fundamentally indifferent towards the demographic make-up of its student body").

    I trust that the falsehood of the aforementioned statements is self-evident, and as a formerly state-schooled student, I actually take offence at his patronising tone. I for one revel in being part of the academic elite and do not feel neglected. Indeed, I find the thought of blanket positive discrimination abhorrent (without prejudice to the case-by-case consideration of applicants whose education has suffered considerable disruption, something which Cambridge already does).

    Of course, Mr Thompson is right to point out that Cambridge should not be considered the *only* sensible destination for an intelligent person. There is nothing objectionable in a teacher suggesting that a course at another institution might be better suited to an individual; the problem is that many teachers discourage their pupils from applying to Cambridge on the grounds that they "would not fit in socially".

    There are also some more sinister motivations behind discouragement, for the illustration of which I beg leave to cite anecdotal evidence. I went to a grammar school, in which the previous cohort had had a low Cambridge success rate but a higher success rate at the other place. As a result, we were implicitly discouraged from the former and encouraged towards the latter, in order to make the school's "Oxbridge" statistics look better. Furthermore, they pressurised us into not applying to the same College as another pupil wanting to read the same subject, on the spurious grounds that this would damage both pupils' chances (manifestly false). Having heard some months previously from an alumnus about the content of the Cambridge course, I had come to the conclusion that it was absolutely ideal for me, so I ignored my school's implicit advice and applied (successfully) to Cambridge.

    For a more general example, many schools boast about the percentage of pupils getting an offer from their first-choice university; for a school with a low success rate at Cambridge, it is much easier to make this figure look impressive if pupils are discouraged from taking the risk of applying.

    In summary, therefore, the problem is that the discouragement practised by many teachers is **not done in the best interests of their pupils**.

  • Controversial

    Your politics are as poorly thought-out and hypocritical as your mother's.

    • diane

      ouch. that's essentially a 'yo mama' comeback.

      • Truth

        losing leadership elections runs in the family…

        • Add Hominemineminem

          Enough with the ad hominems. Attack the (fairly obvious) flaws in the logic of this article, not the author or his mother.

  • Tory Toff

    Kitchen supper anyone?

  • Worrying…

    …that self-righteous hypocrisy appears to be a genetic condition

  • Daniel Abatan

    I think he's trying to sell us something.

  • Josh Heath

    Now I will never forgive you…

  • Disappointed

    James, this is a really unintelligent article. How the fuck did you get a room in Great Court.

  • Mean Meme
  • Working_Class_Hero

    The author and most of the respondents have treated 65% and 59% as basically the same figure. They're not. What these figures show is that despite the fact that 65% of the top grades are achieved by state school students, only 59% of students at the top universities come from state schools. Despite the figures showing that over the last 10 years these figures have moved in the right direction, they nevertheless demonstrate that it is STILL harder even for the "rough diamonds" and "highly polished turds" that are "talented" state school students to get a place at Oxbridge than it is for private school students. Meritocracy?

    And it should spark outrage that state school students aren't encouraged to apply here on the grounds that they won't fit in – unless you subscribe to the view that Oxbridge universities are the sole preserve of the rich elite?

    • Interesting

      I thought only the Daily Mail used the term 'to spark outrage' non-ironically

  • Whyaxye

    James, yo mama spent good money on your education, and this is how you repay her.

  • This whole article

    is champagne socialism at its worst.
    State schools not advising students to apply to Oxbridge has NOTHING to do with said schools thinking their students are too good for Oxbridge, or that 'the university doesn't care about them.' It has to do with the presentation of Oxbridge within state schools as some kind of totally unachievable enigma. When I revealed to my A level teachers that I was applying to Cambridge I was met with either wide-eyed fascination accompanied by various mythical anecdotes – my English teacher was convinced that all students had grand pianos in their rooms – or raised eyebrows and outright derision. We weren't discouraged from applying, it was simply never imagined that we might.
    It is precisely because state school teachers – at least in my experience – DO believe Oxbridge to be 'the pinnacle of academia' that they neither expect nor encourage their students to end up here.

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