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.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Radcliffe Camera and All Saints College at Oxford University, England.
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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.

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.

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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.

Debunking, demystifying

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.

"Oxford is an elite university, not an elitist one," he adds. "The single most effective sort of outreach work involves bringing would-be applicants to Oxford and showing them around so that they can meet current students."

Oxford University alone spent £2.8 million (about $4.5 million) on outreach activities in 2008-09, in addition to providing almost £5 million ( about $8.2 million) a year for bursaries. 

Cambridge provides similar amounts, while both institutions have teamed up for initiatives such as open days for students from a variety of backgrounds at venues like the London stadium of the Premier League soccer team Arsenal. At these, academics and students attempt to debunk whatever myths may hold back some kids from applying.

But more must be done, according to the government, which is growing impatient with the selection of students on exam results alone.

"We hope that all universities will consider incorporating contextual data into their admissions processes better to assess the aptitude and potential of those from disadvantaged backgrounds," said by Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, as he launched a new 10-year strategy for higher education in Parliament.

Responding, the Conservative opposition warned the government against engaging in "crude class warfare," while teachers from private schools also spoke out against the prospect of state intervention to force universities to accept more pupils from poorer backgrounds.

'There is a danger that, if Lord Mandelson exerts political and financial pressure to bring about these changes, he will subvert the excellence of our universities," the right of center newspaper Daily Telegraph was told by Andrew Grant, chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of 250 elite private schools.

The nub of the problem, say many, is woefully declining educational standards at government-run schools.

Rise of a prep industry

Further complicating the picture are the record increases in students winning high grades and the rise in applications to Britain's top two universities, leading Oxford to introduce more pre-interview aptitude tests for applicants. 

Without them, it would be impossible to differentiate potential interviewees between "the very best and the very good," it says.

Although the conference argues the tests are not ones of knowledge or prior learning, their use has reportedly led to a rise of a "prep industry" providing private tutors who help teenagers negotiate the admissions process.

Both Oxford and Cambridge also insist the tests have little in common with older entrance exams that were scrapped in the past decade under pressure from state schools, which alleged they discriminated in favor of private-sector pupils.

Mr. Bekhradnia warns: "It is a worry that you can prepare for tests at some schools, and a certain culture there will also advantage some. The search is still on for a test which you cannot prep for."

Yet suggestions that entrance tests put applicants from state schools at a disadvantage were rejected by William Smith, a former state school pupil studying modern languages at Cambridge.

"They are difficult, but that's the point," he says.

"No one expects you to get 100 percent. The whole point of the interview and testing process is to push you, and realize your potential."

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