Oxbridge Blues

Earlier this year, Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford, announced two major initiatives to help increase the number of students at the university from disadvantaged backgrounds. One enables pupils with weaker results from poorer homes to attend a foundation year at Oxford. The other aims to provide additional support to pupils applying to Oxford from schools with little or no experience of supporting such children. The aim is to ensure that by 2023 a quarter of Oxford’s undergraduates will come from the UK’s most under-represented backgrounds. Not so long ago, Tottenham MP, David Lammy, used the Freedom of Information Act to show that in 2015, 82% of Oxford offers went to students in the very top socio-economic groups; Cambridge was hardly any better. The racial and wealth profile of both universities is woefully unbalanced – the same is true of other leading Russell Group universities. There is certainly a problem to address.

I may be head master of one of those seven or eight independent schools shamed each year for getting too many of their pupils into Oxford and Cambridge, but I am also the product of a Birmingham comprehensive school; thanks to having the support of a wonderful teacher, I went to Cambridge university in the 1970s and loved it. Even though I don’t think it gets to the heart of the problem, what Oxford is suggesting clearly makes sense. Foundation courses and help with understanding the system are wise initiatives.

But then I look at some of the rhetoric, and feel a bit unsure. Louise Richardson states that it is “entirely legitimate” to offer places to disadvantaged applicants over those of the same ability who were better off. No one would for a moment doubt the fairness and justice of such a decision – but how neat the dilemma! Two equally bright students at interview – of course, take the one who has shown equal merit from a much more challenging background. Who in their right mind would not?

But what if Professor Richardson really means, “When selecting between a very bright pupil from an independent or grammar school and a pupil from a comprehensive, we will increasingly take the latter, even when we are pretty sure they are less academic than the one we are turning down.” Is that, then, still fair? Is it in the university’s interests, or even those of the student themselves?

Maybe it is. Maybe this is the best way to right the balance and address the many injustices of the past, where closed scholarships, old boy or girl networks, donations to the college wine cellar, a word with a favoured don, led to grotesque injustices. But these practices are long-gone and there are other, more fundamental, ways to make changes that benefit children from less advantaged homes, benefit Oxford and Cambridge, and benefit the UK.

For almost a thousand years our two oldest universities have existed to cherish and advance the powers of the human intellect. More Nobel prize winners are affiliated to Cambridge University than to any other university in the world after Harvard. Oxford is not far behind. Their reputations are well-deserved and hard-won. It will be a tragedy for this country, and for the cause of scholarship, if two of the world’s leading universities feel under political or media pressure to run an admissions system that endorses the comfortable fiction that it doesn’t really matter if no one has been taught much at school because anyone can make up for it with a foundation year or an admissions system that is only fair in one direction.

If it is in the interests of the UK for Cambridge and Oxford to take in a wider range of social backgrounds, and yet not dilute their academic mission, as I believe it is, then the following needs to happen.

First, the short-term fix of lowering entry standards to create a more diverse student body should be questioned: is there not a risk such a process will lead to slow but inexorable decline in world rankings, meaning the immediate gains of such a policy will all be for nothing? Worse, does it disincentivise schools and politicians from addressing the real problems: the highly variable provision of academic teaching across many of the UK’s schools? We need physics, maths and other in-demand graduates in front of our most disadvantaged children, loving the opportunity to share their knowledge with them and bring them on to great things. But too many schools have few or none of these in their staff rooms.

It isn’t just pay - new teachers often feel quickly disillusioned by school management, and both pupil and parental behaviour: one by one they jump ship and go and earn more money with less indignity somewhere else. Last year, The Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that 40% of state school teachers have left the profession within five years of starting to train, and for key subjects, such as maths and physics, that figure was nearer 50%. This affects the very children who most need help. Just last month the EPI said that disadvantaged children are, on average, 18 months behind the rest of the class by the age of 16. Forcing highly selective universities to move the goalposts doesn’t remotely solve the problem. It just enables lazy politicians to ignore it whilst seeming to be on their side. The fact that too many British children, especially those from poorer homes, continue to underachieve at school, was not addressed by the GCSE and A level grade inflation that ran wild under Tony Blair; nor will it be solved by creating an unlevel paying field for university admissions. One day, politicians will have to accept that the right answer really isn’t a quick fix, and our universities should be showing them the way – like King’s College, London, whose magnificent Maths School in Lambeth is the top academic success story of the summer.

How else can we ensure disadvantaged children win places at good universities? Every school with sixth formers must be required to appoint a member of staff whose role is to act as a well-informed university “signpost”, guiding young people towards the best options, and explaining the best way of making a good application for tough universities. That is what independent and grammar schools do so well, and schools like mine already share that practice with local schools with whom we have formed partnerships over the years.

The two universities have some lessons to learn, too. Their admissions process can seem labyrinthine and intimidatory. Why is it not possible to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge? Why are admissions still based on a collegiate system which is completely baffling to those outside the charmed circle of top schools, tutors and “Oxbridge” experts? Applicants should be interviewed by faculty and then distributed to colleges, not left trying to guess whether this year Dumbledore College will have fewer applicants for history than Voldemort.

Worst of all is the way Oxford expects sixth formers to stay for three or four days in someone else’s bedroom while they endure an interview process that sprawls across time and place in a way that seems designed solely to terrify. Whereas Cambridge interviews require a candidate to spend a single day attending a few interviews at one college, Oxford expects pupils to wait days in a student room while they decide whether to ask them for another interview somewhere down the road. I am sure this alone must be deeply off-putting for many children who belong exactly to the demographic Oxford wishes to reach out to.

So, two cheers for the foundation course, but please don’t pretend this goes anyway near addressing the real problems.


Andrew Halls

Head Master

King’s College School