As a student, my time volunteering with university admission outreach efforts was often rewarding and often frustrating. I was, therefore, delighted to read Brooke Masters’ report in the Financial Times on how elite schools are losing their grip on Oxbridge admissions.
This perceptible change is a boon on two fronts. Most importantly, it means bright pupils from less prosperous backgrounds have a better chance of attaining a high-quality university education. When alumni of two universities dominate top roles in many sectors, that’s a boost to our noble, if elusive, aspirations to meritocracy.
Second, a particular cycle of negative media coverage that fixates on low state school admissions to Oxbridge is breaking and giving way to positive cases. Take, for example, Brampton Manor in London’s East End, whose pupils this year received more Oxbridge offers than those of Eton.
For Scots, this gradual success story may seem like something that’s happening elsewhere. It shouldn’t. Scotland’s brightest state school finishers aren’t applying to Oxbridge at the rate of their peers in private schools or English state schools. When, in 2019, Cambridge admissions overall were two thirds from state schools, one third from private schools, that ratio was reversed in the case of Scottish pupils.
Yes, some factors explain the difference. Scotland doesn’t have the academy schools that, especially in London, create the biggest admissions success stories. The difference in fees can also be off-putting; though not, perhaps, as much as the persistent falsehood that students of English universities pay these upfront. But the problem and solution are issues of attitude.
Through outreach work and contextualised admissions criteria, Oxford and Cambridge are doing their part to make their undergraduate bodies more representative. But a bigger driver of change is the growing number of schools and pupils who realise Oxbridge applications are at least worth a try. That change in attitudes doesn’t seem to be catching on in Scotland yet.
There’s no reason this should be the case. Scottish students are within a manageable distance of two of the world’s top-5 universities at which they are counted as home students. The solution is for Scottish state schools, like their English or private counterparts, to see Oxbridge admissions as the next step in achievement: beyond good Highers results and admissions to Scotland’s own prestigious universities. Those pupils and teachers who want to investigate this further will find support and resources abound.
A major success story is happening in the UK’s leading universities. Scotland’s state school pupils shouldn’t continue to miss out.