Fifteen years ago, Gordon Brown turned a pupil at a comprehensive school in the north-east into a national cause célèbre in a fierce attack on selection procedures at Oxford University. Laura Spence, the then chancellor pointed out, had the “best A-level qualifications you can have” but had been turned down by Magdalen College, Oxford. Her rejection came at the hands of “an interview system more reminiscent of an old-boy network than genuine justice for society”.
Spence, who went on to earn five A grade A-Levels, subsequently accepted a £35,750 scholarship from Harvard to study biochemistry and graduated from the Ivy League university in 2004.
She didn’t look back. Oxford and Cambridge, however, were thrown into disarray. The past decade and a half has seen those universities launch a ferocious public relations exercise to rescue their reputations. Oxford’s vice chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, spoke a few years ago of his institution being “passionately committed to attracting talented students whatever their circumstances”. He said: “By offering the most generous financial support in the country, we have made it more likely that those from under-represented socio-economic backgrounds will choose Oxford.”
Cambridge, while resisting the idea of lower admissions criteria for poorer pupils, trumpets its £4m a year spending on “outreach” work to identify talented pupils from deprived backgrounds.
But now all that talk is put into stark perspective. In its annual report this week, the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission will pick a major fight with Oxbridge all over again. And they expect it to make waves.
The commission’s report – likely to be the last under the current “social mobility tsar” Alan Milburn – will reveal that, despite an increase of 6% in the proportion of state-educated pupils between 2003-04 and 2013-14, independently schooled pupils still make up around two-fifths of the intake at both Oxford and Cambridge.
It will conclude that to meet their benchmarks for disadvantaged pupils Oxford will need to increase the percentage of state school pupils by a quarter (24%) and Cambridge by a fifth (18%). And it will, in an unprecedented and provocative move, name and shame the worst Oxford and Cambridge colleges (Oxbridge colleges have control over admissions of undergraduates).
Some of those colleges, it will say, make less than half of their offers to state-educated pupils. Even the best performers in this regard still give a quarter or more of their places to the privately educated.
The move has delighted Damien Shannon, who sued St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in 2013 when, despite winning a postgraduate place on academic merit, he was told that without £12,900 to fund living costs he was not welcome. The son of a single mother from a council estate in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, Shannon had only applied after a chance meeting with a professor who said he was “quite bright and should have a go”. Shannon decided to represent himself in a legal action against the college’s extremely expensive and hostile barristers on the grounds that it was discriminating against poor pupils.
Despite initially appearing to take a hard line, the college put up the white flag and settled out of court. It gave him his place and it reviewed and reformed its policies. Shannon is now a high-flying civil servant.
But what a battle. And he recognises just how otherworldly an Oxbridge education must seem to many young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds. His first degree was done partly at Salford University, and then the Open University. “I loved my time at St Hugh’s and I go back all the time now,” he said. “But studying there as an undergraduate would not have occurred to me in a million years, no more than living in Buckingham Palace.”
Looking down the list of the worst-performing Oxbridge colleges, Shannon can also see a trend. “The decision on admissions is made by the colleges and not the faculty for undergraduates,” he said. “I have always thought that was a mistake. I don’t know how a college can divorce an academic decision from the knowledge that a candidate who comes with resources may be more useful for the college in the future.
“I do not think it is any coincidence that the richest colleges are the ones who seem minded to accept the richest applicants.”
On Thursday, on publication of its report, the commission will demand more action from Oxbridge and, in particular, the greater use of contextual data – information on the background of pupils that can be used to judge the merits of an applicants’ grades and their predicted A-level grades – to increase the quota of pupils from state schools.
The true picture about poorer children accessing Oxbridge is likely to be worse than the bald statistics show, however. State schools include grammar schools, and those in wealthy catchment areas.
Back in 2012 the business, innovation and skills select committee sought to block the appointment of Professor Les Ebdon, vice chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, as director for the Office for Fair Access, which monitors and regulates admissions to universities because of his championing of such information. The then education secretary, Michael Gove, lobbied privately to reject Ebdon, saying he was an advocate of social engineering rather than excellence in universities. That is old and unwelcome thinking, the commission will now say.
Shannon, 29, who now gives talks to pupils at Paddington Academy in London on attaining a place at Oxbridge, agrees. “Contextual data is not a new idea it has just gone out of vogue,” he said. “A man called David Miliband, who went on to be foreign secretary, received a place at Oxford University on the basis of contextual data. If it was a good idea 30 years ago, it is a good idea today. If it was right for David Miliband, then I don’t see why it wouldn’t be right for the children from poorer backgrounds today.”
THE WORST OFFENDERS
Colleges with the lowest proportion of acceptances from the state sector
Christ Church (Oxford) 42.2%
Trinity (Oxford) 44.3%
St Peter’s (Oxford) 47.1%
Robinson (Cambridge) 47.4%
University College (Oxford) 48.3%[“source-theguardian”]