The Oxbridge challenge

Having successfully increased the number and proportion of our students progressing to the most selective universities, why is it that we have not seen a similar increase in the numbers progressing to Oxford and Cambridge?

In a recent post I outlined the strong improvement in the numbers of NewVIc students progressing to Russell group universities and also to the “top third” of 54 universities with the highest entry requirements. Between 2012 and 2013, Russell group numbers rose from 42 to 60 and are set to rise further in 2014.

Newham has high numbers of students progressing to university overall and these improvements will help the borough and its neighbours bridge the gap with more prosperous areas when it comes to progression to selective universities.

However, despite our best efforts, progression to Oxford and Cambridge is not moving in the same direction. In a typical year, between 5 and 10 of our students apply and between 0 and 3 actually progress to one of these two universities. The likely outcome in 2014 is 2 students progressing (both to Oxford) out of 7 applications in total. From 2010 to 2014, the numbers progressing are: 2, 2, 3, 0, 2. These numbers vary from year to year but there is no upward trend.

If Oxford and Cambridge represent the pinnacle of what British Higher Education has to offer, we need to ensure that a fair share of qualified young people from Newham and the country’s other most deprived areas are accessing what it has to offer. For our college, this probably means at least double the current numbers applying and getting places. So what are the challenges and what can we do?

The geographical challenge: Our students are reluctant to move away from home when they progress because for many this represents too much change and risk all at once. Staying at home is less expensive and does not require a sudden break from the network of family and peer support. Only 9% of our university progressors move away from home. Clearly, Oxford and Cambridge are not in London. Students do not need to be persuaded to apply to University College, King’s College and Queen Mary College but convincing them to use one of their applications to Oxbridge (or even Birmingham, Bristol, Warwick or Manchester) can be a real challenge.

The application challenge: The Oxbridge application process has more obstacles to negotiate than that of most other universities. Because there are both college and subject considerations operating students can find the choice of college and the additional layer of inter-college ‘tactics’ quite bewildering. Our most successful students cope well with the admissions tests but the additional prospect of going to a strange place and speaking to strange people does pile on the pressure and create barriers which put off some excellent applicants. We do a lot to overcome this ‘strangeness’ and we prepare them well for interviews and but there’s no doubt that a number of our ‘straight A’ students simply don’t want to put themselves through this.

The socio-cultural challenge: Despite all the outreach work, open days and residential visits, our students’ perception is that Oxford and Cambridge have very few students like them; working class and overwhelmingly of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) heritage. Often the material which aims to promote Oxbridge as being full of ‘ordinary’ students simply emphasises how middle class it feels. To many of our students the prospect of being able to create a strong new support network for themselves within the university or the smaller college community seems remote. The stakes and the risk of failure seem high and the safety nets more distant.

The partnership challenge: For colleges and schools, partnership work tends to be channelled through the designated link college for your local authority area. In some cases this means accessing a range of well organised activities but this does vary from college to college. There is no coherent structure for the Oxbridge college to engage with all the post-16 providers in a local authority area and so links often depend on a few good bilateral relationships with some providers which can end up benefiting some students and not others.

So what can be done?

Much good work is being done. Having invested in a previous project with Pembroke college, Oxford which has moved from Newham, we are now delighted with our developing partnership with Wadham College, Oxford and the ‘Civilisation and Barbarism’ programme which we have designed with them to stretch and challenge students who might aspire to apply to Oxbridge. Wadham is also helping to curate the classical civilisation strand of our liberal arts lecture programme. Colleagues from both Wadham and Caius college, Cambridge have been very generous with their time in coming to speak to groups of students or welcome visiting groups. We are also excited about the possibilities of working with Fitzwilliam, Cambridge and others on specific initiatives which may help potential applicants.

However, all this commitment and hard work has not yet led to the breakthrough which everyone agrees is necessary. So here are a few suggestions:

Engage with London and other major cities: Oxford and Cambridge are where they are, but both universities could engage in a concerted and high profile way with some of the country’s most disadvantaged communities. In the past, Oxbridge colleges did this through university settlements in the East End. Mansfield House for example pioneered free legal aid in the 1890’s around the corner from where NewVIc is now. These settlements might date from a more philanthropic era but what would a 21st century version of Mansfield House look like?  Can we imagine an Oxbridge presence in London which offered an open, democratic and community focused approach to scholarship and intellectual inquiry? This could be co-located in colleges and provide a real bridge to progression.

Highlight pastoral support: If students are put off because they are concerned about moving away from home or being ‘fish out of water’, the universities should do more to highlight the human scale of the college system and the excellent pastoral support offered. They should also strengthen their networks of students from working class and BME backgrounds, to provide mentoring and advice both pre- and post- admission.

Improve interviews: Interview styles vary but we know that applicants are more likely to do themselves justice if they can start on familiar territory before being invited to respond to the unexpected. This might mean asking candidates to prepare a short presentation which could be followed up with questions from a panel. Clearly, candidates could over-rehearse but they would at least have the opportunity to open the conversation confidently on their ground. Another technique used by some universities is to invite candidates to a lecture on a topic they can’t prepare for and to follow up with an observed activity in response to the issues raised in the lecture.

Create local sixth form hubs: Link colleges should establish a hub for all the post-16 providers in their patch and negotiate an academic programme for their sixth formers which address their needs, this could combine academic subject enhancement with study skills, such as critical reading, essay writing, research and presentation skills. In London, link colleges in neighbouring geographical areas could agree to create larger hubs providing economies of scale and increased impact.

Consider setting local targets: Why not give the link college system some real responsibility for recruitment from their area by setting them targets based on the number of high achieving students from under-represented groups? These would not be quotas but would set the sixth forms and the universities a clear objective, for instance: “the university should be getting at least x applications from students in this area and helping them to be well prepared for the selection process – with a view to making y offers.”

Nothing suggested here requires any drop in standards or special treatment in admissions, but if we are serious about wanting to change the profile of our most selective and least representative universities, we will need to be more focused and more radical.

Based on my talk to admissions tutors at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge on 26th June 2014.


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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4 Responses to The Oxbridge challenge

  1. Really interesting post, Eddie. Would any of your Oxbridge NewVic be willing to return to Newham to advocate the process? Seeing others who did it is fantastic. I take some of our Elmhurst Primary (just off Green Street) kids to Cambridge twice a year on various adventures. For little ones, I think a complete demystification of Oxbridge is a laudable aim, and for the kids to feel a sense of entitlement.


    • Jonny,
      Thanks for your feedback and I’m glad I’ve discovered your excellent blog in the process.
      We often get our alumni back to mentor current students and I’d be very happy to organise something for Elmhurst. Our students are also involved in the primary reading project and they mentor secondary students. We’ve just started collecting information about the primary schools our students attended so in future we should be able to match alumni by primary as well as secondary school.
      I will DM you my email address so we can discuss this further.
      Many thanks, Eddie


  2. Joan says:

    Whenever I read something along these lines I wonder what attempts are made to reassure and involve parents in their children’s choices. Thirty odd years ago (!) when I made the move from a secondary modern turned comprehensive in Stepney to the University of Manchester my parents were petrified. It took enormous stubbornness on my part to go to university in the face of such apprehension from the people I was dependent on. My dad died while I was in my second year but I know from much later conversations with my mum that they worried (to some extent rightly as it turned out) about losing me to an alien world of middle class values (as typified by the Ken Barlow character in Coronation Street) and particularly worried about me leaving the church. Acknowledging these parental fears and helping parents to work through them seems to me to be a worthwhile project. Accepting that your children’s lives are going to be very different even if they stay at home is one way forward.

    Incidentally having watched the programme about auditions for University Challenge last night on BBC2 (second part tonight) I can’t imagine any of my teens feeling Oxbridge was a place they’d feel comfortable in. For every one step forward of being shown that the colleges are full of ‘ordinary people’ (two of my Newham educated children have been on trips aimed at showing this) there is an enormous Brideshead style step back.

    I know from attending events at your college how much work you are putting in to getting better access for your students. You deserve every success in this.


    • Thanks Joan. Your personal story powerfully reminds us that we need to help students and their parents with each step towards greater independence and autonomy and we need to acknowledge the fears and anxieties all round. We will be discussing how to cope with this ‘broadening out’ at the first parents’ forum of the autumn term.
      We should not expect young people to reject their background in order to embrace higher education; another reason why we need more East Londoners to progress to Oxbridge. They should all be proud of their heritage and not feel they have to change who they are in order to access an intellectually challenging university experience.


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