Oxford and Cambridge universities should streamline their admissions processes as the current system is leading to confusion and complexity and could likely act as a deterrent to students from low-income homes.

This is according to Oxbridge Admissions, new research from the Sutton Trust that analyses how the two elite universities pick their undergraduate students.

The Sutton Trust wants to see a single application process at each university – currently, students apply to individual colleges though some applications are allocated by a central pool – with more transparency in the interview process and a review of the usefulness of tests set in addition to A-levels by their constituent colleges.

The report finds that the application processes both universities go through to select their undergraduates can differ significantly from college to college. At the moment, tests vary by college at Cambridge – where many subjects have different tests at different colleges – and by subject at Oxford; Oxbridge Admissions identifies almost 400 different possible tests beyond A levels that prospective students could have to take. On Tuesday, Cambridge confirmed that they will introduce new university-wide subject tests.

The Trust is calling on both universities to review their approaches to any additional tests applicants are required to sit to ensure they are genuinely useful, and are not adding an additional ‘access’ deterrent. The report also recommends that, to make sure that no students are deterred by cost, both universities provide travel passes to applicants from non-privileged homes and publicise clearly the financial support available before students apply through a single, accessible portal.

The report’s recommendations follow new analysis, also published in Oxbridge Admissions, that finds state school students applying to Oxbridge between 2012 – 2014 were more likely to be accepted to some colleges than others. The Oxford College where state school applicants fared worst was Brasenose; just 11% of state school applicants were offered places, compared to almost a third (30%) at St. Peter’s and Somerville Colleges.

At Cambridge, state school students were three times as likely to be accepted to Murray-Edwards College (52%) than King’s, where 17% of state school applicants won places, though King’s has the highest proportion of all state students at any Oxford or Cambridge college.

And there are differences between the proportions of state school students at each college. At Oxford, 79% of all UK admissions to Mansfield College were from state schools but just 46% were at Christ Church. Similarly, at Cambridge there are also large differences between colleges – from 71% at King’s to 50% at Trinity.

There have been increases in the proportion of state school students at both universities in recent years. In 2014, the proportion of successful Cambridge applicants from the UK educated in the state sector increased to 62%; at Oxford, 56% of those accepted were from state schools. This is an increase from 47% since 1997, when access and outreach activities started to become more prevalent. However, in 2012, there were just 40 students who had been eligible for free school meals who progressed to Oxbridge.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“Over the last two decades we at the Sutton Trust have worked very closely with both Oxford and Cambridge to increase the proportion of state schools students.  This and other outreach initiatives have resulted in 20 per cent more state school students.  However, more should be done.  Our surveys and experience suggest that many bright state school students are put off by the application process which is both intimidating and complex.

“Specifically, we believe that the universities rather than the colleges should control the admissions policies and interviews. The numbers of additional exams and tests should be reviewed, again to avoid advantaging those who gain from extra tuition and support. More should be done to consider contextual admissions, recognising how much harder it can be for a bright student in a tough inner city school than in a successful private or state school.”


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 160 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2. The recommendations reflect discussions with state school teachers, those who have been involved in admissions processes at the two universities and students.
  3. There are 11 different exams at Oxford and it might appear to a teacher or young person viewing the website that there are over 380 at Cambridge. In practice, the university says these can vary between being asked to read a set piece of text and discuss it, to maths problems and other written work. This figure includes any reference to ‘college-set tests at interview’, or ‘college-set study/reading at interview’. This does not include any school essays submitted, or preparatory work required pre-interview.

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