Top universities: Britain pushes Oxford and Cambridge to recruit more widely
Top universities Oxford and Cambridge draw 43 percent of students from private schools that educate 7 percent of the population. They face pressure to take applicants' social and economic background into account.
When the summer sun shines down on the "dreaming spires" and elegant architecture of top universities Oxford and Cambridge, it's almost possible to forget they are more than just picturesque tourist magnets.Skip to next paragraph
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Alumni from the two ancient seats of learning still dominate Britain's cultural and political establishments, making up more than 80 percent of the judiciary, nearly half of top journalists, and 34 percent of senior government ministers.
That preeminence of "Oxbridge" graduates is widely accepted. But the thorny issue of the disproportionate representation on campus of students from advantaged backgrounds has again been stirring, prompting calls to ensure that Britain's leading universities reach out to a far broader range of top-notch students.
A leading education think tank has called on Oxford and Cambridge to emulate the Ivy League's recruitment of poorer students, while the government has thrown its weight behind new targets that will promote changes it says are overdue.
It has urged universities to take pupils' school and family backgrounds into account, and to set targets for the recruitment of more young people from underprivileged backgrounds.
The government also signaled interest in a future system where grades alone will also not be enough to win places at leading universities.
Fifty-seven percent of Oxbridge students come from government-funded state schools, even though they educate 90 percent of Britons. Privately run fee-charging independent schools make up the remaining bulk of Oxbridge's intake, despite educating just 7 percent of the population.
"There is no evidence that Oxford and Cambridge are socially discriminatory when it comes to admissions," says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), who says their social profiles are largely the result of their demand for high grades and the performance of pupils attending the different types of schools.
"But there is some evidence," he adds, "to suggest that they admit more independent school pupils than is warranted by their subsequent achievement while at university."
Oxbridge or school system at fault?
In response, Oxbridge highlights its scrupulously meritocratic approach to admissions, and suggests that the real problem lies with the inequities of the secondary school system.
The idea of targets for students from particular backgrounds also meets with opposition, even among students who have made it to Oxbridge from state schools.
Benjamin Storrs, a graduate of a comprehensive (state) school in Manchester, said he detected no sense of elitism after arriving at Oxford to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics).
"One problem is that students self-select when it comes to applying for university, so that someone who is actually good enough might not even apply for Oxford, because they think they won't get in," he says. "The solution is to encourage more aspiration in the state school sector."
Mr. Storrs is providing home tutoring to pupils from Oxford city schools as part of a student-run charity aimed at children from refugee families and those seeking asylum.
Such work means the "enduring need" to demystify Oxford is heading in the right direction, according to Jonny Medland, the student union's access officer, who works alongside university officials to ensure prospective students receive information and support.