Public money goes to pushy parents

Catherine Watts 22 November 2007

A controversial organisation that makes its money by holding expensive tutoring sessions for Cambridge and Oxford hopefuls has attracted government funding set aside to help pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get to university.

The private company Oxbridge Applications has written to state schools outlining their services to applicants, which can cost up to £3,000, and suggested that payment could come out of funding from the government’s access programme, Aimhigher.

The letter that Oxbridge Admissions sent to state schools said: “We are now looking to greatly expand the number of students who receive our services free at the point of delivery.

“We aim to do this by working with schools and LEAs to use Aimhigher funding to purchase our services.”

The admissions company is treated dubiously by its critics, who take issue with its targeting of well-off customers and its profit at the expense of desperate applicants, as well the unfair position in which it places applicants who do not use its services.

Wes Streeting, the NUS vice-president, condemned the firm as “morally reprehensible”, and suggested that, by agreeing to publicly fund the company, higher education authorities have provided “a tacit endorsement to a system in which it is possible to buy advantage in admissions.”

“It means that pushy middle-class parents and schools can entrench their advantage over other applicants,” he said.

University authorities also attacked the move. Geoff Parks, the Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, determined it “questionable whether such use represents good value for money given that the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and their Colleges offer expert advice about preparing for our admissions process for free.”

He indicated that applicants could be wasting their time – and the government’s money – by stating that the standard of Oxbridge Applications’ services are “open to question.”

“The mock interviews are almost entirely delivered by recent graduates who are given minimal training and in many cases are being asked to conduct mock interview in subjects well outside their own expertise,” he said.

The Cambridge Student (TCS) learnt that, at a recent Oxbridge event, a Physics applicant was mock-interviewed by two graduates – who held PPE and History degrees.

In response to the revelation that the company had obtained government funding, Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) Access Officer Charlotte Richer told TCS: “CUSU is appalled that the government can in any way endorse companies like Oxbridge Applications, which provide poor and often inaccurate information at extortionate prices.

Oxbridge Applications undermines the efforts of CUSU and the University to demystify the admissions process; they make money by pretending that there is a secret behind the process that only they can help you discover”.

Both she and Parks directed concerned applicants to the University’s website, where “the best preparation and advice” can be accessed for free.

But Philip Walker, a spokesman for Aimhigher defended the scheme. “If it falls within the strategy of the steering groups in each region, and if they are satisfied it will benefit young people by helping them to make their university choices, then it is an appropriate use of their funding.”

Catherine Watts