Does Oxbridge Deserve You?

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

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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.