Oxbridge entrance – a modest proposal

There has been some talk recently about apparent bias in the way Oxford and Cambridge universities select undergraduate students, disproportionately favouring (white) students from fee-paying schools. The universities respond, with some justification, that they accept anyone who gets top grades at A level and performs well at interview, and it’s not their fault if state schools are failing to educate pupils to the required standard. (This is a gross oversimplification of the argument, but you get the idea.)

When I went to Cambridge (in the late 1970s) about half the undergraduates were, like me, from state schools. The good news is that this has improved to around 62%. The bad news is that this is still not enough. To be at the forefront of academic research the leading universities need to attract the best minds from whatever background. It is unlikely that they’re to be found in such high proportions in fee-paying schools, which only educate about 6.5% of Britain’s children.

The big question is how to remedy this imbalance. Almost any proposed change to the admission system still allows fee-paying schools to gain an advantage. Their higher number of teachers per pupil means they can provide intensive coaching that helps students get better A level results than they would in a state school. The supreme self-confidence they instil in many pupils is a great advantage at interview. The extra-curricular activities, from music to sport to mountain climbing, look good on the UCAS form and are in decline in many cash-strapped state schools. I think it’s time for something more radical.

There are roughly 4 million people aged 15-19 in the UK at present, so there are about 800,000 reaching university age every year. Oxford University has around 3,200 undergraduate places each year, so one might expect one in 250 people to go to Oxford, or say 1 in 300 to allow a margin for foreign students. A 1000 pupil secondary school has around 150 students in each year, so might expect someone to get into Oxford every two years or so.

I propose that Oxford and/or Cambridge should allocate undergraduate places to schools based purely on the number of pupils aged 11-16 years at that school. For most schools the allocation would be a number less than one. The school would “bank” each year’s allocation until they have more than 0.5 places at one university in the bank, and have a pupil who the school believes would benefit from going to that university. The bank account would then be debited one place, taking the balance below zero.

It would be up to the school to choose which pupil(s) to send, using any criteria they think appropriate. I’m sure most would take this responsibility seriously, but if St. Cakes (motto Quis paget entrat) decides to send the boy whose parents make the largest donation to the headmaster’s drinks cabinet that’s their business. I’m sure they’d welcome the ensuing publicity.

The side effects of this policy might be interesting. Would parents move to be near a “failing” school that has lots of places in the bank but no pupils capable of benefiting from a university education? The influx of children from homes with high expectations might do a lot to revive such “failing” schools. Would Eton form a multi-academy trust with lots of inner-city schools to boost its pupil numbers and so be allocated enough places for its fee-paying pupils? Probably, so the allocation rules will have to define a “school” as occupying buildings in close proximity.

Footnote: the state school I went to had 180 pupils in each year. I was the only one of my year group to go to Cambridge, and another of my year got in to Oxford. This was better than average for a state school and reflects the privileged upbringing of many of its pupils. I was lucky enough to be raised in a home full of books, where it was expected that I and my three siblings would go to university, with parents who willingly paid our maintenance costs, and who moved house to be in the catchment area of a good school. I benefited hugely from all these advantages, and it’s wrong that people without such advantages are denied the benefits.

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