What makes British universities so hard to get into?

What makes British universities so hard to get into?
Source: Sidharth Bhatia/Unsplash

Recently, the Complete University Guide (CUG) released its University League Tables 2019; a national ranking of UK universities in 70 subject tables.

One of the ten measures used was “Entry Standards”. Based on this, the institutions with the top three highest entry standards are: Cambridge, Imperial College London and Oxford (in this order).

Conversely, the three schools with the lowest entry standards are: Birkbeck University of London, Bedfordshire and Leeds Trinity.

We know Oxbridge and Russell Group schools are prestigious and coveted establishments in the country’s higher education scene. But what lies behind the fierce competition for entry?

Several factors, official and unofficial, are behind this phenomenon:

High UCAS tariff scores

UCAS Tariff points refer to the numerical score calculated from qualifications generally studied between the ages of 16 to 18. While its main purpose is for UCAS and universities to report data to government bodies, some universities use them as part of their entry requirements.

This is what CUG’s rankings are based on. Using Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data, students’ scores were converted to a numerical score (A level A*=56, A=48 … E=16, etc; Scottish Highers A=33, B=27, etc) which were then added up to form the total score.

What follows is HESA averaging these scores for all students at the university and adjusting it to take account of the institution’s specific subject mix.


Good grades don’t fall out of thin air. How educated your parents are, their income levels and your grandparents’ backgrounds all play a role in the kind of grades you score at IB or A Level. In other words, context matters when interpreting grades.

An A from an offspring of affluence doesn’t weigh the same as another A scored by a working-class student – something that Justine Greening, the former education secretary, has publicly noted.

In a conference last month, Greening said recruiters should recognise that high A-level grades achieved by hot-housed pupils were “not as impressive” as those of candidates from more modest backgrounds.

Which is why the process of getting the grades required for certain schools can feel so difficult for those from more modest backgrounds. Even though the potential of such applicant is not predetermined, they are ignored by admissions teams for failing to achieve a standardised set of grades.


Cambridge has been accused of elitisim and promoting “social apartheid”. Source: Shutterstock

Beyond the published entry requirements, universities employ other considerations when deciding whether to admit a particular applicant. Here, elitism comes into play, so much so that lawmakers have accused Oxbridge of “social apartheid” after obtaining student enrolment figures for 2010 to 2015.

The figures reveal that Oxford and Cambridge are hugely unrepresentative of the country and continue to predominantly recruit from private schools in the Southeast of the country, despite efforts to reach students from lower economic backgrounds and those from ethnic minorities. International students don’t find it much easier, either.

“Difficult questions have to be asked, including whether there is systematic bias inherent in the Oxbridge admissions process that is working against talented young people from ethnic minority backgrounds,” Labour MP David Lammy and former higher education minister said, as reported by The Guardian.

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