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.

  • 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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