Sir Peter Lampl on the background to our Oxbridge Admissions report.
Going to Oxford was a life-changing experience for me. I didn’t come from a wealthy family – my father was a Viennese émigré – but my chemistry degree at Corpus Christi opened doors for me that led me to become a successful entrepreneur and ultimately to my setting up the Sutton Trust.
Through the Trust, we’ve been working closely with both Oxford and Cambridge over the last two decades to improve access to both universities and their colleges. We’ve helped thousands of young people through summer schools, pathways and other programmes, and more recently our teacher summer schools. So when today we suggest improvements in their admissions processes, we do so from a position of critical friend.
Oxford and Cambridge are simply Britain’s greatest universities. Our research over the years has shown their importance from politics to the City, from Whitehall to the media, in moulding the elites who shape all our lives. That’s why it is so important that we do all we can to ensure that both universities benefit from talented young people of all backgrounds.
There has undoubtedly been progress, thanks to all our efforts. State school students at Oxbridge have increased 20% over this period. Both universities are far better focused on access than ever, and are led by people with a strong commitment to improving opportunities for able students from low and middle income homes.
It is also true that schools have a big role to play. Standards have risen in places like London, but progress is patchier in other areas. We need more young people gaining the exceptional grades expected from potential Oxbridge students too.
Our studies have shown that too many teachers wouldn’t advise their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge, and they greatly underestimate state educated intakes. Our research has also shown that five elite private schools and sixth form colleges send more students to the two universities than 1800 state schools combined which is more than half the state schools in the country.
But as our greatest universities, there is also a responsibility for them to constantly review practices that owe much to tradition, but which can militate against fairness. Time and time again, we hear from the bright student from a state school offered an interview at Oxford or Cambridge, but expected to enter a process they find intimidating while both private and state schools who send many students to Oxford and Cambridge benefit from experienced teachers who know the ropes. And that’s if they get around to applying in the first place.
That’s why in our research brief today we want a much more transparent and standardised admissions process, one that is as easy to navigate for the lone able applicant from a state school in Hull as it is for the student from Eton or a highly successful state college such as Hill’s Road Sixth Form College.
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 school.
Other recommendations build on the excellent access work already underway – spending access money wisely, evaluating programmes and offering travel passes to the poorest interviewees.
Too often the reaction to such suggestions is one of defensiveness. I can understand it a little when the universities find themselves under political attack from Gordon Brown or David Cameron, and where there may be good arguments against their charges.
But constructive criticism from longstanding friends of both universities is about finding ways to build on the great work that the universities have been doing over the last two decades together with us and others to improve access. I hope that both universities – and their colleges – will view the recommendations we make today in that spirit.