Oxbridge spend access money at Eton; blame state schools for access problems

First published April 2011

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and former Higher Education Minister, exposes how Oxbridge colleges spend access money on public schools, but blame state school teachers for the universities’ access problems.

Last December, I published the responses to some Freedom of Information requests made on the undergraduate admissions data on individual colleges of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Just as intriguing as the numbers were the respective reactions of the institutions. You would be forgiven for thinking that presented with the fact that Merton College (Oxford) did not offer a place to a single black applicant over five years might trigger a degree of humility. Or the fact the University as a whole had almost as many students from one leafy London borough as the whole of Scotland would lead to a bit of self-reflection. But no.

The PR machines at both institutions kicked into life and pedalled the well-worn excuse they always have: don’t blame us, blame the schools. The dons aren’t naïve – they know full well that what they say about ‘failing comps’ and un-ambitious teachers have many avid listeners in the echo chamber of the British media. One only needs to go as far as Toby Young’s column on how the data vindicated his Free School policies to appreciate how many people were willing to excuse the abject failure of Oxford and Cambridge’s admissions figures to further fuel convenient myths.

You only need to look at what constitutes ‘outreach’ at these institutions to see the disdain they have for the idea they should be more open and inclusive. In 2008 and 2009, Oxford targeted 770 of its ‘outreach’ events at private schools, including 12 events for Marlborough College, 11 for St. Paul’s and 9 for Eton. Even Westminster School, who make up 2% of the entire undergraduate intake at Oxford, were blessed with 5 ‘outreach’ events.  How many events have taken place at the 24 secondary schools in Sandwell, where Oxford has not accepted a single pupil from for the last five years? Or in Knowsley or Hartlepool?

Let’s be clear: we know there are schools that do not stretch their pupils. But we also know that there are many that do. There is only so much that even the best intentioned schools can do when they are faced with universities that seem to be actively working against the ethic of widening participation. Some of the most vociferous comprehensives often find they can get no further than pressing their nose against the windows of the top universities.

We shouldn’t forget that the state school system in America is plagued by far worse inequities and failures. But that hasn’t stopped Yale recruiting over 18% of its fresher year from Black or Hispanic backgrounds. Nor has it stopped them increasing the number of students from poor backgrounds by expecting no one with a household income of under $60,000 to pay a dime in tuition or cost of living.  The difference in their outreach work is that they mean it: the Ivy League institutions will stop at nothing to get the brightest and most capable through their doors.

Harvard puts billboards up in downtown New York, inviting applications. Yale stuffs every state in America with full-time outreach officers going from school to school, all year round, providing tailored information and guidance. Both Universities write to every student in the country from a low-participating neighbourhood that achieves the requisite grades.

They do this because decades of pedagogy have made it clear to them that the 18 year old from the single-parent family in the Bronx who gets a good SAT score is likely to be brighter and has displayed more potential than the 18 year old who went to a private school on the Upper West Side and received the same SAT score.

Can you imagine Oxford or Cambridge being as uncompromising in their pursuit of excellence? The same pedagogy will tell them a similar story about the 18 year old from the 14th floor of a tower block on the Broadwater Farm Estate with three A’s being brighter – and more deserving of a place – than the Etonian who has been coached into getting identical grades, yet neither University heeds it. They have recruited the same profile of candidate for the last half century.

I’m proud that the last Labour government increased participation in higher education in the most deprived neighbourhoods by 32%, but there was hardly any increase from that cohort reaching the country’s most selective institutions. It is a stain on our record that there are more Black students at London Met than there are at all the 20 Russell Group Universities combined.

The coming year will see the implementation of a new fees structure where prospective students will most likely make higher education choices on perceived cost as opposed to their academic abilities. The government has already abolished AimHigher, the nationwide scheme that linked schools with higher education institutions. Universities will now be solely responsible for the entire sum of all widening participation efforts. Now more than ever, we need Oxbridge to change.

This is the time to challenge them: if the biggest barrier for state school applicants applying is that “Oxbridge is not for me”, why shouldn’t every comprehensive school student that received 3 A’s at AS-Level receive a letter asking them to apply? What if teachers were able to advise A-Level choices better because both universities had made it explicitly clear what A-levels and what grades they expect in competitive applications? What if they recognised that it is far more impressive a feat to be the first and only person in your college to get 2 A grades at A Level than it is to be one of the many in your boarding school to get 3 As?

The Higher Education White Paper, due in the summer, is an important watershed for generations of perspective students. It can either be the moment where Oxbridge finally modernises, or it can be the moment that the handbrake is applied to social mobility. Last December showed what a challenge this will be. By blaming schools for the inequities of their admissions procedures, Oxford and Cambridge are antagonising the very people they ought to be working with.

David Lammy MP

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