Minister slams Oxbridge

15 February 2008

Catherine Watts

News Editor

Higher Education minister Bill Rammell has criticised Oxford and CambridgeUniversities for failing to accept enough working-class students.

According to Rammell, the percentage of students from working-class backgrounds who finish school and go on to university is a disappointing 20%. But the problem is worse at Oxbridge than anywhere else, he said.

Whilst the Russell group of leading research universities take one in five of their students from lower social groups, the minister said that “at Oxbridge, it’s one in 10.”

“I know the causes for that inequality are complex and not confined to universities’ admissions policies,” he continued. “There’s work that must be done in schools as well and, as a government, we’re doing it. But that’s no excuse for any university to wash its hands of the problem.”

Yet Rammell’s criticism comes as CambridgeUniversity has just finished hosting another successful shadowing scheme weekend. Now in its eighth year, the CUSU-coordinated scheme specifically targets high-achieving pupils from families and schools with little background of sending people to Oxbridge, and attempts to give them a taste of the reality of Cambridge life.

During the weekend, visiting year-12s were paired with current undergraduate students. The sixth-form pupils attended lectures and stayed in college, with all expenses met by CUSU and college support. After the two shadowing weekends still to be held, more than 250 pupils will benefit from this year’s scheme – for which applications had already expanded by 20% on the previous year.

CUSU Access Officer Charlotte Richer said: “The Shadowing Scheme is incredibly successful and is a fantastic way for sixth formers to see what it’s like to study a particular course in Cambridge in real time, with real people.”

She also reputed Rammell’s criticism: “To say that Cambridge is ‘washing its hands of the problem’ is incredibly ill-informed.

“Cambridge’s problem is with applications, not admissions. Blaming Oxford and Cambridge isn’t conducive to changing the ratio of students from lower income groups. It just perpetuates in the media the myths that Cambridge is an elitist institution and risks deterring students from ‘target’ groups applying.”

She also defended Cambridge’s efforts to widen participation explaining that Cambridge invests £3 million in access initiatives.

Cambridge University’s director for Admissions, Geoff Parks confirmed Richer’s claim that the University is working hard to widen participation: “Evidence of this determination can be seen by the recent decision to significantly extend the Cambridge Bursary Scheme.

“We have also recently completed a detailed review of our widening participation strategy agreed a new action plan, and will be committing substantial addition resources to these efforts over the next year.”

“Cambridge wants to attract and admit the best students of all backgrounds and is determined to remove all barriers, both real and perceived, that presently hamper access to the university”.