The Oxbridge Myth

Photo of a typical oxbridge college
My College, St Peter’s Oxford. Photo from Wikimedia

There’s been a lot in the news recently about how Oxford and Cambridge are failing young people who are educated by the state system and how they perpetuate the elitist machine that runs the UK.  As ever, I’m frustrated with the polarisation of the argument perpetuated by the media, which boils down to “it’s fine” and “everything is broken”, which no room for focussing on the nuances of the problems.  As a state school student who went to Oxford1, I thought I’d weigh in with my own experiences and where I believe the issues are.

Firstly, I had a great experience at Oxford.  Yes, there were some independent school snobs who looked down on me because I wasn’t rich.  I was even told not to sign up for some of the clubs in freshers week because I “wouldn’t be able to afford it”.  But there were also some great people.  I made a lot of friends there from all backgrounds.  It’s wrong to tar all independent school students as getting there without hard work and merit, just as it’s wrong to say that the state school students are only there to fill quotas.  For every state school person who had a great time, you’ll find one who hated it there and I’ve seen examples of both in the media recently.  Oxbridge isn’t for everyone and it is a very pressured environment.  The interview process is designed to find the people who will thrive there – not just those with the highest grades.

Just like we’d want the House of Commons (and the House of Lords for that matter) to be representative of our population,  it’s not unfair to expect that the students at Oxbridge would also be representative of the demographics of the UK.  There’s been a lot of focus on the fact that more offers were made to applicants from Eton than there were to students on free school meals across the whole country.  In 2016, of the 162 applicants from Eton, 59 offers were made. In the same period, there were over 200 students from households with an income below £16000 per year.  Current rules for free school meals are less than straight forward, and I’ve been unable to find any evidence to support the claimed statistic as there are over three times more students from low income families than students who went to Eton.  The nearest is the statistic on David Lammy’s original post that “573 students on free school meals get 3As or better at A-level” but it does not indicate how many of those students make an application or get an offer to support the assertion by Paris Lees.  However, when you look at the statistics for schools2, there are ~90,000 students at independent schools in the 16-19 age group and ~430,000 at state schools of the same age.  All things being equal we’d expect to see only 17% of applications and offers from independent schools.   What we see is over double at 40.9% offers.  So there is, without question, a skew towards independent school applications and offers.

Looking at the ethnicity distribution, as of the last census there were ~6.15 million registered 11-17 year olds who will make up our undergraduate student population now.  I think it’s fair to look at the ethnicity of this age group rather than the UK for all ages to see whether Oxbridge is diverse.  You can cross reference the census data yourself here.  I took the raw counts for each group and converted them to percentages.  The Oxford statistics on ethnicity also needed a bit of preparation.  The percentages are given as an acceptance rate per ethnic group, so I took the raw numbers and converted these to a percentage of offers.

Ethnic group Percent of UK population at undergraduate age Percent of offers made to UK students
White British 85.6% 83%
Mixed/multiple 2.3% 6.4%
Asian/Asian British 7.6% 8.2%
Black/African/Carribean/Black British 3.4% 1.9%
Other 1% 0.4%

As David Lammy rightly pointed out, there is a disparity in the offers made for black students and those minorities categorised as “other”.

So it is a fact that some ethnic groups are underrepresented3.  It is also a fact that there is an economic disparity.

I believe (although cannot find recent statistics) that independent schools have less ethnic diversity than state schools, so given that there’s already a disparity in favour of independent schools, this further exacerbates the problem.

Why these things exist at the application and offer stage is a more nuanced question than just calling white privilege.

Even when I was there, Oxford was trying hard to encourage more state school students to apply although I had personally never heard of or been involved in any of these programs.  At the time, I had no inclinations to go to Oxford, despite being fairly academic and (in hindsight) obviously capable and a good fit.

My secondary school was a “comprehensive” state school.  It taught what was set out by the regional education authority and government policy.  Classes were large and mixed ability and performance was (and still is) “well below average” for the UK for a whole host of reasons.  The subjects offered for exams were very limited, with very few subject choices.  I remember not being pushed to work hard and, while some of the teachers were amazing, it wasn’t a great environment. It’s hard to be completely objective looking back, so I asked a lot of people who were in my year at school for their opinions and the results were pretty interesting.

It was easy for talented kids to fall through the cracks if they were considered “hard work”

If you wanted to achieve you had to go get it and be brave about it

Careers advice was practically non-existent

Doing your ‘options’ seemed rather random, a lot of people got put in classes they did not choose which affected their grades and enthusiasm for learning.

Her careers teacher told her not to aim so high

Too many lessons without an appropriate subject teacher

I remember being told by a careers advisor that waiting tables would be a good option. After I told them I wanted to go into art in some way.

There was no one to turn to and no additional help in run ups to exams we were just left to it

I actually WAS encouraged to pursue career I was interested in, Architecture. However I didn’t get the correct advice on further education on where to go from there and nothing become of it.

The lack of careers advice was definitely a problem – we were expected to go into unskilled labour.  Some of the people who provided the comments above acknowledged that they knew even at the time that they should have done more, but there was no encouragement or support to do so.  There was also a problem with too many supply teachers and the difficulty in trying to teach large classes.  There was a feeling of success if students got any qualifications at all – it was without any doubt, a low aspirational school.

I did wonder if the low aspirational type of careers advice was a symptom of decades ago and then heard the story that 9 year old Isaac asked Tim Peake.

Seems like our education system is still encouraging children to aim low.  This is not right and needs attention.

My father, who was a teacher during this time, reflected that “exam boards were under continual pressure” to change the exams and this led to pressure on the teachers who then didn’t have enough resources for exam preparation. “I’m sure that this additional pressure on a teacher contributes to the numbers leaving the profession as they can’t teach what brought them into it in the first place”.  I suspect it’s difficult to maintain motivation for teaching with all these pressures.

Compare these experiences with independent schools – they have smaller classes, selective intake for only the best students, higher paid teaching staff and complete choice over which exam boards they choose and how they teach the syllabus.  Students at these schools are expected to go to top flight universities and are seen as failures if they get less than straight A’s.

So with the disparity in the teaching system between state and independent, there are proportionally more students with higher grades from independent schools than state schools.  However, this is not enough to contribute to the demographic variance we see at Oxbridge.

One of the defence arguments given is that in order to make more offers to state school pupils, first they have to apply and the disproportionately lower number of applications compared to number of students in state schools reflects this. From my own experience, this is definitely a problem.  Nobody had mentioned Oxbridge as an option until a few months before the UCAS application deadline.  Even then, it was only because one of the Governors of my 6th form college was offering modest scholarships if any pupils got in.  Without this, I doubt I would have considered Oxford at all.  I’ve heard similar from other state school Oxbridge students – it was never considered as an option until a key individual sowed the seed.  The outreach programs certainly help with this – getting students to go back to state schools in their area and talking about their experiences – but this relies on Oxbridge students to volunteer to do this.

Independent schools have Oxbridge entry as one of their main statistics alongside their percentage A/A* A-level results.  It’s expected and discussed with students early on.  They regularly invite back notable old boys/girls to talk to their current students.

Also, state school students are more likely to apply for oversubscribed courses where competition is fierce: maths, medicine, law etc.4  These are the subjects that bright state school students are encouraged to go into.  They are less likely to apply for subjects without a direct practical career: classics, music, history.  If you’re going to get into £50k worth of debt then I guess you want to be sure of a career when you come out unless you have a financial safety net.

Add on top of this the perception of the “Bullingdon Club” environment and even if a state school student was motivated to go to Oxbridge, they might choose not to apply thinking it’s “not for them”.

There are a few things I believe are important here:

  • All young people should be encouraged to achieve everything they can and not told to give up when they clearly have the drive to work hard for their goals
  • Academic students who meet the entry requirements should be encouraged to apply for top flight universities regardless of their ethnicity, resources or school type
  • Oxbridge should continue their outreach programs to ensure that they reach as many young people as possible and make these institutions as accessible as possible and demystify the environments

It’s not really a surprise that more independent school students get to go to Oxbridge given this.  Not only do Oxford and Cambridge need to show state school students that Oxbridge is an option for them, but we need to look at our school system to ensure that every child has the opportunity to be all they can be.

  1. Yes, I’m an East Midlands state school girl – don’t let the RP accent fool you…
  2. Data from 2013 although I assert that while the population is growing the proportions in each type of school is not.
  3.   I could have done far more in depth statistics on the ethnicity and socio economic backgrounds of the candidates and students with offers but that has the feel of a whole academic paper in itself and I do have a day job and a degree to do 😉
  4. See the side notes in this link

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.