Editorial: Issue 6

Louise Ashwell and Dominic Kelly 9 November 2013

Let’s play a game of ‘spot the odd one out’. Three Jägerbombs for a fiver. A wage slip from the job you hold down at a café to help pay off your living costs. A gown-clad undergraduate tucking into coq au vin in an age-old dining room, with a vial of port in his pocket for afters.

Cambridge stereotypes abound, and none is more prevalent than the image of an establishment overrun by posh boys. Admissions, thankfully, have broadened beyond being the son of Lord So-and-So, but comments made this week by Professor of Education Anna Vignoles suggest that we’ve been kidding ourselves about how much progress has actually been made.

The prospects of poorer students entering higher education have barely improved since 1963. In January this year, Time magazine reported that of the 2010-’11 intake, just 2.5 per cent of Oxford students and 3.1 per cent of their Cambridge counterparts came from low-participation neighbourhoods.

It’s a shameful statistic, and it matters because, so we’re endlessly told, Cambridge students go on to great things when they graduate. A recent Sutton Trust survey found that 47 per cent of financial service employees and 41 per cent of journalists attended Oxbridge. In this issue, we report that the number of legal pupillages claimed by Oxbridge students jumped by a third in recent years.

And why shouldn’t it be so, some may say. We are intelligent individuals whose talents should not be wasted, surely. But while access to Britain’s top universities, Oxbridge among them, remains so skewed in favour of those classes for whom going to university was always a given, this country’s elites are drawn from the most artificially narrow of social pools. One shouldn’t be left out of this opportunity due to economic class.

Cambridge is more than aware of the problem. Summer schools and shadowing schemes all play their part. But it’s much more complicated than a state versus private school dichotomy, and nothing is sadder than the thought that next year’s prospective applicant faces not only stacks of mental preconceptions, but also stacks of debt which are all too close to reality.

As education cuts lead university chiefs this week to advocate levelling tuition fees ever higher – as high as £16,000 a year – it’s the thought of even more disadvantaged students held back by their social class which should be inducing a bout of Week Five blues.