The Statistics: Oxbridge admissions

Oxbridge as a whole

The latest undergraduate admissions statistics for Oxford and Cambridge make for interesting reading. On a purely numerical basis, Cambridge is the easier university to get into, with a global success rate of 21.3%. Oxford received more applications for fewer places, making offers to only 19% of its applicants. Interestingly, the data supports the A* as an arbiter of performance. Although offers are made before A-levels are taken, based on an applicant's best three grades, those who went on to achieve A*A*A* had a success rate of 44%, while only 19.8% of those who went on to get A*AA were accepted.

As reported by The Cambridge Student a few weeks ago, the number of state educated undergraduates in Cambridge is increasing: 63.3% of this year's first-years are state educated compared to only 59% last year. Even so, generalised statistics obscure the sizeable differences in admissions as regards the different backgrounds of students, both in the subject preferences of those applying and the selection preferences of the University in accepting them.

So, what are the most competitive courses at this country's most competitive institutions? At Oxford, both Law and Economics & Management receive 12.2 applicants per place, with a success rate of just 8.2%. At Cambridge, however, it is the Architecture degree course which ranks as its most competitive, with only 9% of applicants receive an offer. The course with the highest success rate was the same at both insitutions (54% Cambridge, 40% Oxford): the gods looked kindly on Classicists in 2011, it seems.

The state school / private school divide

Unsurprisingly, privately educated students were more likely to apply for humanities subjects like Classics, English and Languages, with state educated applicants instead showing a bias towards Law, Maths and Natural Sciences. Independently educated pupils were more likely to secure places studying Medicine (30.5%, compared to 16.5% for state school students) and Engineering (30.5%, 20.7%). In only a handful of subjects were state school success rates significantly higher than those of private institutions: ASNAC (53.3% were state school students, in contrast to 27.3% for independent admissions), Classics (63%, 50.5%) and Geography (38.2%, 28.3%). The admissions statistics in Mathematics make for particularly galling reading. Though nearly one in 10 applicants from state schools applied for the subject, only 18.1% were accepted in relation to 40% from the independent sector.

Cambridge has a clear incentive to increase its state intake as politicians and media commentators alike continue to accuse Oxbridge of elitist admission procedures. What is less clear is how this affects undergraduate performance at the University. Naylor and Smith in 2005 showed that nationwide, "on average, a student who attended an independent school is 6.9% to 5.4% less likely to be awarded a ‘good' degree ." Interestingly, the report goes on to say that, in the case of males, an increase in school fees of £2000 leads to an approximate 1 percentage point reduction in the chances of such a grade. In Cambridge, however, the figures are murkier. Averaged over the years 2005-2010, it is true that 25.4% of comprehensively educated students gained a first compared to only 24.8% of Independent students. On the other hand, they were also more likely to graduate with either a 2.2 or a Third.

The male / female divide

Long gone are the days of Oxbridge as a male-only institution. In 2011, the male:female ratio of accepted students at Cambridge was 54:46. Here, female applications are heavily weighted towards the Arts, with females making 55.6% of applications, compared to an equivalent figure of 46.3% for Sciences. Languages and essay subjects such as English and History of Art boast a particularly high female presence, though interestingly both History and Classics remain largely evenly divided. Economics, Music and Philosophy are the exceptions, attracting a higher male presence of 66.9%, 64.4% and 64.6% respectively. The Science subject which attracts the most female students is Veterinary Medicine, but otherwise women remain a minority, representing less than a third in Engineering, Maths and, notoriously, Computer Science for which the percentage of female acceptances was only 2.9% in 2011.

While Oxford has a more or less similar pattern of subject choices according to gender, the disparity between men and women within the Sciences is less pronounced. The success rate by percentage is greater for female chemists and engineers, for instance, than for their male counterparts. In certain Arts subjects, however, the 2011 intake were weighted towards girls to a remarkable extent; of the sixteen offers made for combined History & Modern Languages, fifteen were to girls, while all seven offer holders for Classics and English were female. It seems more encouragement is needed to equalise the gender inequality the Arts.

Ben Richardson & Louise Ashwell

Article first published 18 October 2012

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