New reports spark Cambridge access debate

Akshay Karia 24 April 2014

The targeting of Oxbridge Access initiatives has once again been called into question after two recent studies revealed the limited access granted to pupils on free school meals and Welsh students.

A study from the Department of Education revealed that only one in every 1000 students who claim free school meals is accepted into Oxbridge, whilst 40 in every 1000 are accepted into Russell Group universities.

The study, which examined Year 11 students who went on to take A-Levels, stated that “the most advantaged 20% of young people are still seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities than the 40% most disadvantaged”.

Meanwhile, former Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy noted the particularly limited access granted to state school students in Wales. The number of comprehensive pupils gaining admission to Oxbridge has fallen from 96 in 2008 to 76 in 2012.

He has blamed the access problem on a lack of ambition amongst teachers; “I’m sure there’s lots of youngsters who would like to go but don’t know how to go about it.”

Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group, has defended its access initiatives, which provided one in three of its students with a bursary or scholarship. An Oxbridge conference was also held in Swansea last month for over 1,000 school students.

“Our universities are committed to ensuring our doors are wide open to talented and able students from all backgrounds, provided they have the ability, potential and determination to succeed.” She suggests that “underachievement in schools and a lack of good advice on subject choices” may in fact be the problem.

Ben Peacock, Access Officer at Robinson, believes that “one of those huge problems is that many on free school meals don’t consider Oxbridge as a possibility because they have merely been exposed to Oxbridge stereotypes as opposed to being encouraged to strive for Oxbridge. Access seeks to redress this, but student access bodies alone cannot reach everyone in this situation.”

He proposes that “if University entrance preparations, and just as importantly, nurturing aspirations, played a more prominent role in teacher training, we could see more dramatic improvements.”

Joe Pape, Access Officer at Trinity Hall, notes that positive changes are taking place, “with just shy of two- thirds of students in the 2012/13 intake coming from state schools”.

He suggests that “a dramatic shake-up system isn’t needed, rather more emphasis on encouraging the more deprived students to apply. Nothing beats school visits (particularly from students) in remedying the problem; regardless of how much information is available on the internet, a real-life human being trumps all.”