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12:53pm on Sunday, 17th February, 2008:

The Gradually Dawning Truth


Last year, I complained about attending a "send your children to Oxbridge" event at my elder daughter's school which spent an hour telling us all what a great place Cambridge was to study at, how many bursaries there were available, how flexible it all was and how wonderful the accommodation and transport is. I regarded it as a waste of an hour that could have been spent telling us how to get our children into Cambridge, and wondered why they were trying to persuade us to buy something we already wanted to buy.

Well, in today's Observer I got my answer. Apparently, only 56% of undergraduates at Oxbridge are from state schools. The rest are from public schools (or, if you're reading this in the USA, private schools). Universities such as Bristol are getting 10 applicants for every place, whereas Oxbridge get 3 applicants for every place. Most of those students are top-quality, state-school educated, and Oxbridge want them. So, telling them how great Cambridge is and how much money they give to undergraduates and how high the staff/student ratio is when backed with 400 years' worth of investment and ownership of half of East Anglia will encourage more people to apply.

I'm utterly astonished that they can't see what's happening here.

Most top students really, really want to go to Oxford or Cambridge. They know they're wonderful places, and that going there will lead to a life of prosperity. However, they also know that you can't get in unless you get 3 As at A-level and pass an interview. Most of them — even the ones who are likely to get 3 As — don't think they will, so they don't apply. Or, if they do think they will, they believe they'll flunk the interview because one of their A-levels is in French or Politics or Art instead of something closer to what they want to study. They apply to universities that will let them in with 2As and a B and don't put any emphasis on interviews.

Got that, Oxbridge? They don't apply because they don't think they'll get in. They only have 5 shots at universities, and they don't want to waste one on a university that demands they have 3 As at A-level when they doubt they'll get them. This is why they swarm all over the Russell Group universities and ignore Oxbridge. They believe they stand a chance of getting in to those. Saying that Oxbridge is a place of privilege is not going to make more of them apply; if anything, it'll make matters even worse.

My daughter didn't apply to Cambridge. She wanted to do physics, and only got a B in her AS levels (as a result of almost missing the exam after traffic chaos meant she had to abandon the bus and run over a mile to get to the examination room in time, but that doesn't count for anything). She re-sat it, and will indeed probably get an A. However, that one, partial result meant Cambridge was no longer an option. How could she defend it at the interview? Instead, she applied to Bristol, Bath, York, Nottingham and Durham.

The only way this is going to be resolved is if students have their A-level results before they apply. Then, they'll know they have 3 As, and will be more likely to shoot for Oxbridge. We would indeed see dozens of applicants for every place under those circumstances. Until that happens, though, Oxbridge will always overly-favour the super-confident, which means those educated at public schools (or selective state schools, which are just as bad).

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).