Figures obtained by the BBC show a sharp drop in the number of applicants from comprehensive schools in Wales to Oxbridge, while the number of privately educated applicants from Wales has remained constant.
While in 2008 the total number of Welsh applicants to Oxbridge was 96, the number fell to 76 in 2012, with 32 applications to Cambridge.
The figures have led politicians to ask whether students were being offered the support they needed to succeed in obtaining places at top universities. Angela Burns, Conservative member of the National Assembly of Wales and Shadow Minister, said: “The mood music coming out of Wales for the last couple of years has been pretty disastrous,” she said. “We talk about how we’ve failed in our international rankings; our pupils are consistently at the bottom of the tables. There may have been improvements but we’re dropping behind the rest of the UK and Europe.”
Former Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, who was appointed Oxbridge Ambassador in March to get more Welsh students to consider applying to Oxbridge, suggested the problem lay with school and college preparation: “I’m sure there’s lots of youngsters who would like to go but don’t know how to go about it. It’s getting rid of the fear of the perceived elitism when they go there. Unless we up the pressure on schools and colleges in Wales to do this, then it’s not going to do anything about it.”
He also said that students from South Wales were five times less likely to apply to Oxbridge than their counterparts in some English counties.
However Dr. Philip Dixon, the director of ATL Cymru, the education union, said: “I have yet to find a teacher who wasn’t passionate about doing the best for their children, but chronic underfunding and so many other demands may have sometimes meant that schools have not been able to focus as much as they would like on their high flying youngsters.”
Speaking to The Cambridge Student Dr. Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, said: “We have long said that the main causes of under-representation of disadvantaged groups include lower attainment at school, and a lack of advice on subject choices. All our universities are committed to ensuring that every student with the qualifications, potential and determination to succeed has the opportunity to gain a place at a leading university, whatever their background.”
Julian Huppert, MP for Cambridge and former lecturer at Cambridge University, said to TCS: “These figures are disappointing and clearly there needs to be further investigation as to why Welsh students are not applying for Oxbridge. There has been a great deal of work carried out by the top universities to encourage state school pupils to apply. Cambridge has lots of outreach activities annually with groups from primary age upwards.”
But he also called on the Welsh authorities to play their part: “I hope that the Welsh education authority will make sure schools across Wales are making the most of the opportunities offered to state school pupils from the universities.”
Timur Cetin – Deputy News Editor