Is the Oxbridge reputation deterring state school applicants?

They’ve written their personal statements; endured the nail-biting wait for a response; been through the gruelling interview process. Now, the results are almost in. It’s the time of year where students who have applied to Oxford or Cambridge find out if they’ve secured an offer – and two years ago, I was one of them. I made it through to the interview stages, only to find myself sat in a room full of people I could never compete with – I was just a normal student from an East London comprehensive – and feeling like everyone could tell. Safe to say, I didn’t get an offer.

Fewer than 1% of students in my year at school were successful in securing places at Oxbridge. Meanwhile, the prestigious Eton College sends roughly 30% of its final-year pupils to Oxbridge every year. Across the board, this deep-rooted inequality is apparent in the ratio between state and private school students. A recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has heavily criticised both universities for failing to improve state school access, requiring Oxford and Cambridge to increase their intake of state school pupils by 24% and 18% respectively. Certain colleges, such as Oxford’s Christchurch College, offer fewer than 50% of their places to state school pupils; David Cameron has admitted that the lack of diversity among students at his former university (Brasenose College, Oxford) was “disgraceful”. This evident lack of social mobility at Oxbridge proves more needs to be done to make these top institutions accessible for non-private school students.

While Oxbridge degrees are no doubt impressive, there is more to intelligence than mere academia. It is therefore unfair to base someone’s suitability for Oxbridge on their background. If someone has not been presented with the same opportunities readily available to those who have been privately educated, then is it really possibly to determine their intelligence from an application form and an interview? Even successful state school applicants are not always welcomed, with stories of classist bullying rife at Oxbridge.

This leads me to question whether the reputation of Oxbridge and its students is driving away less-wealthy or state school applicants. The Oxbridge alumni list of politicians, writers, scientists and mathematicians can seem daunting to even the most confident person. I was intimidated by the entire experience of my application process, to the point that I’m glad I didn’t get an offer.

With people from more varied backgrounds completing higher education, and hefty tuition fees for all, Oxbridge’s top-of-the-food-chain status needs to be broken down, and it needs to be more accessible and accepting towards state school students. We are all paying for our education at a range of institutions, which are no doubt equally as stimulating as Oxbridge, as well as offering courses in other areas, including creative and vocational fields. The Russell Group label is slowly losing its prestige, as up-and-coming universities, including our own beloved UEA, storm the leader boards for student satisfaction, beating both Oxford and Cambridge in the Complete University Guide 2016.

Surely this says something about the university experience and how it is evolving? Studying at a diverse and welcoming university better facilitates learning. This is why Oxford and Cambridge are under such pressure to expand their intake; intelligence should be welcomed at every institution, without exclusivity or condescension, and especially as universities begin to welcome more students across the board.

These statistics prove that Oxbridge is falling behind in several aspects. Although its academic power cannot be disputed, the experience of its students is rivalled by UEA. This focus on Oxbridge and social mobility is necessary, because university is no longer exclusively for the top 1%. More and more people are succeeding in education, and it is vital that students from state schools are included in this.


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September 2021
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