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North and south: the great divide

First class, then race, now Oxford and Cambridge find themselves contending with accusations of geographical bias when admitting applicants on to their courses. In an article for the Guardian, Mike Nicholson, director of admissions and outreach at the University of Oxford came forward to say the heart of the problem lies with school attainment. And he makes a good point. Both Oxford and Cambridge have stringent grade criteria that an applicant must fulfil before they will even be considered for a place. How can Oxford and Cambridge consider applicants who fall short of this mark?

Nicholson goes on to say that in 2012 just 45 students in Gateshead achieved AAA or more at A level, compared to 1,021 in Hampshire. Would it make sense to lower the grade requirements for an applicant from say, Gateshead? It has largely been argued no, because this discredits the whole system and undermines the achievement of applicants from low socio-economic backgrounds being awarded places. But the current uniform entrance requirements do not cater for an education system that is at best uneven and at worst failing a huge number of students.

In last week’s Telegraph, it was revealed that Surrey sent almost as many people to study at Oxbridge last year as those in Wales and the north east combined. This is in spite of the fact that there were more applications from Wales and the north east (1,187 in total, compared with 868 from Surrey). A Cambridge University spokesman told the Guardian that there’s ‘a strong correlation between local authorities that produce large numbers of high-achieving A level students, and local authorities that produce large numbers of Cambridge applicants’. It follows that without top grades students can’t apply to top universities.

Arming applicants with A levels

This weekend The Independent’s Richard Garner promoted the idea of letting students apply to university after their A levels. He argues that having their grades in hand would give students greater confidence to apply to top institutions. This would also counter the problem of unreliable grade predictions from school teachers. In our experience at Oxbridge Applications, post A level applicants with a clutch of A*s have a better chance of securing an offer than those with predicted grades as the universities know exactly what they are getting.

In a Guardian article by Richard Adams, a freedom of information request revealed that in 2012 97% of successful Cambridge applicants achieved A*AA minimum at A level. In light of this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Oxford attracts more UK applications than Cambridge (11,832 to Oxford in 2012 compared with 9,147 to Cambridge). Adams put this down to Oxford being more successful in its outreach efforts. However, it could be down to the simple fact that many Oxford courses have lower grade requirements than Cambridge (AAA) allowing a larger number of students to meet the minimum criteria.

Not the only ones…

Oxford and Cambridge aren’t alone in falling short of recruitment targets. According to the Telegraph, 23 of 131 UK universities were ‘significantly below’ targets for state schools last year. This 23 includes Bristol, Durham, Exeter and Leeds universities. Worryingly, the Russell Group has suggested a reason state school applicants miss out on places at top universities is because they often choose the wrong A levels. Schools and students need more support identifying the ‘right’ A level subjects if there is to be any hope of rectifying the current situation.

The same Telegraph article also identified which Oxbridge colleges had particular high and low state school admissions:

‘At Oxford, just 47 per cent of places at Pembroke College went to state school students, while numbers were as high as 78 per cent at Mansfield. At Cambridge, the proportion was as low as 51 per cent at Trinity and as high as 76 per cent at King’s.’

This extraordinary imbalance goes to show how decentralised the admissions procedures can be. It is true that both Oxford and Cambridge are doing great outreach work. Nicholson notes that students who attend Oxford’s UNIQ summer schools have double the average success rate and last year 63.3% of Cambridge first years came from the state sector (the largest proportion for 30 years). Ultimately, however, it comes down to each college to decide on the demographic of their intake. It will be interesting to see if these figures for Pembroke and Trinity still stand next year.

In today’s Telegraph, education editor Graeme Paton reports that Alan Milburn, chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, has called for more state school applicants in universities next year – 3,700 to be precise. Milburn’s report recommends that universities rely more heavily on contextual data when making admissions decisions. Oxford and Cambridge already make use of contextual data to help them shortlist candidates for interview. On top of this, both universities see a lot of a candidate before they reach a decision – from written work to admissions tests to the all-important interview. For other universities that have just paper records to go on, a new-found emphasis on contextual data, such as details of a candidate’s school and parent’s educational background, can only be a positive step in levelling the playing field.

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