Admissions to Oxbridge should be fair – general discrimination against public school pupils is not

Oxford and Cambridge are supposed to be elite institutions. They rank among the best universities in the world and their future success depends on their ability to continue to nurture a culture of excellence. Most people would agree that those lucky enough to be offered places should have been judged on their ability rather than their background. Historically there has been some truth to the accusation that Oxbridge was not as open as it could have been to children from less privileged families, particularly since the vandalization of high school education in the 1970s.

Now it seems to have the opposite problem. As this newspaper revealed this week, for the first time, public school students are more likely to enter Cambridge University than their private school counterparts. For the start of this school year, private school pupils had an acceptance rate of 18.8%, compared to 19.9% ​​for public school pupils, with Oxford following a similar trajectory. The difference may seem small, but it has given rise to allegations of social engineering. It is claimed that universities deliberately discriminate against young people based on the school they attend.

It is a matter of fairness. Private school students might enjoy some advantages over their public school peers. They are likely to have received more support to prepare for the Oxbridge interview process, for example. However, the solution to this is not to roughly grade the applications of fee-paying school applicants. As HMC President Melvyn Roffe says in today’s article, it’s not just about using school type “as a proxy ‘quick and rough’ measure.” Perversely, it may even end up penalizing young people from poorer households who have been talented enough to win a scholarship to a top private school.

Part of the problem is that universities are trying to solve a problem that they cannot solve. Yes, they can strengthen their access programs and encourage students from poorer families to apply. But if these groups do not travel to Oxford or Cambridge in sufficient numbers, much of the blame lies with the schools they attend. Some public schools have made great strides in encouraging academic excellence, including Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela Community School. Others still fail their students.

There are dangers for universities that engage in superficial social engineering. For example, there are many world-class institutions, in Britain and abroad, who will be only too happy to accept applicants who have been rejected because of the school they attended. Oxford and Cambridge would do well to re-examine their admissions processes.

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