Independent school pupils 7 times more likely to get into Oxbridge - report
At Cambridge, just 49 percent of students at St John’s College in 2017 were from state schools, compared to over 76 percent at Churchill College. Source: AFP/Tolga Akmen

Pupils from independent schools are seven times more likely to get into Oxford and Cambridge, the UK’s two oldest, most prestigious and highly-ranked universities, a new report has found.

The finding from a new report by education and social mobility charity the Sutton Trust also found that pupils from eight schools and colleges, mostly fee-paying independent schools, had more students accepted to Oxford and Cambridge in the last three years than three-quarters of all other UK schools.

“The eight schools with the highest number of Oxbridge acceptances had 1310 between them over a three-year period, while 2894 schools and colleges with two or fewer acceptances had just 1220 acceptances between them,” the report said.

Between 2015 and 2017, applicants from the Southeast region were found to receive twice as many acceptances compared to those in the Northeast. The divide can be even starker when comparing areas like Thurrock in Essex – dubbed the ‘capital of misery’ by The Guardian – with wealthy areas like Kingston-upon-Thames. The former had zero applications to Oxbridge, while the latter had 150 acceptances alone.

In other words, nothing much has changed in terms of access to elite higher education in the UK. The finding in this year’s Access to Advantage report is almost identical to its 2011’s publication titled Degrees of Success. A pupil’s socioeconomic background, the school they attend and where they are from continue to play a large role in whether they are admitted into the higher echelons of British tertiary education, far more than merit alone.

With Oxbridge deemed the first step towards joining the country’s corridors of power – a disproportionately high number of UK Prime Ministers, judges, cabinet members and business executives hold a degree from these two institutions. This repeated finding sounds like a death knell on the poor estate kid hoping to one day make it if he or she works hard enough at school.

Looking at its previous years’ admission data, it’s clear what the ideal candidate for Oxbridge looks like: white, attends schools like Eton or Harrow, based in home counties surrounding London and parents in professional or managerial roles.

Frequent calls throughout the years to admit more disadvantaged students and increase diversity in its student body by policymakers, MPs and analysts appear to have fallen on deaf ears in Oxbridge’s admission offices.

Unless real efforts are made to improve diversity, the upper reaches of certain professions continue to go to Oxbridge graduates. Writing for The Independent, journalist Ben Chu, an Oxford alum himself, argues this is because of the economic mechanism called ‘signaling’.

When hiring, an Oxbridge degree signals a “capacity on the part of a candidate for exceptional perseverance and capability”. Faced with a choice between two equally strong candidates save for the name printed on their degree, the signal will usually nudge recruiters towards picking the one from Oxbridge.

Inaccurate as the signal may be, it works on pupils too. Chu notes that the signal creates incentives for children.

“It gives smart and ambitious children an added reason to apply to Oxbridge because they correctly discern that their chances of future advancement are higher there. This battle for places among bright kids reinforces the signal of quality, creating a vicious circle.”

To break this cycle, employers and “gatekeepers” to the upper echelons of society and employment shouldn’t continue placing Oxbridge on a pedestal and assume its graduates represent the “gold standard for graduate talent and ability”.

“We need recruiters to wake up (more fully – many, in fairness, have) to the reality that there are also vast numbers of extremely able and talented people elsewhere too,” writes Chu.

Education secretary Damian Hinds suggests the two universities should admit students who have not done A-Levels, but T-Levels in relevant subjects instead.

T-Levels are new two-year courses which will be introduced in 2020. Designed alongside employers, it will give young people “skills that industry needs” and a technical alternative to A levels to help them get a skilled job.

Hinds said Russell Group universities that make a “blanket rejection” of students with T-levels are making an “error” and will be “missing out” on talent.

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