Britain’s Class Divide: Can Oxbridge Solve Its Privilege Problem?

In a country with the lowest social mobility in the Western world, Oxford and Cambridge rank last among large research-intensive U.K. universities in terms of students drawn from public schools. How will that change?

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Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Students walk under the Bridge of Sighs along New College Lane in Oxford, England, on March, 22, 2012

Corrections Appended January 8 and 10, 2013

In a study decorated with leather-bound books and busts of ancient Greek scholars, an 18-year-old British student is getting an assignment: a 2,000-word essay on democracy and Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” “I want you to get argumentative,” says her teacher, glancing over his spectacles. “Next week we’ll pick up the theme of democracy with Plato.”

Dressed in jeans, bangles and a leather jacket, the student, Jane Odera, appears at home with these highbrow challenges. Yet just five years ago, she was living with her mother in social housing and considering dropping out of school to become a hairdresser. Now, she’s applying to one of the most prestigious universities in the world: Cambridge.

(MORE: Can Oxford and Cambridge Shed Their Elitist Images by Admitting More Poor Students?)

Her teacher, Oxford professor Peter Claus, travels to Odera’s London public school, Brooke House Sixth Form (BSix), once a week as part of a program he founded in 2008 called Pem-Brooke. The initiative, partly funded by Pembroke College, Oxford, is aiming to help disadvantaged students get into the country’s two most storied universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

The challenge for such students is immense. Pupils from private schools have been a significant presence at Oxford and Cambridge, known collectively as Oxbridge, for decades, despite the fact that only 7% of British students attend them. (The point is often made by the universities that despite privately-educated students being in the minority, they make up approximately one-third of the students with high enough grades to apply to Oxbridge — thereby constituting a larger pool of eligible candidates.) In a country with the lowest social mobility in the Western world according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Oxford and Cambridge rank last among large research-intensive U.K. universities in terms of students drawn from public schools. In 2010–11, just 2.5% of Oxford students and 3.1% of Cambridge students came from low-participation neighborhoods, and both universities scored below admission benchmarks calculated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a non-governmental body, for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, admitting around 10% from that group.

(MORE: Britain’s Universities: Funding Excellence)

That matters because those left behind are less likely to join the ranks of Britain’s elites. Over 30% of leading professionals in the U.K., including almost 80% of the judiciary, 47% of highflyers in financial services and 41% of top journalists attended Oxbridge, according to recent studies by the Sutton Trust, a U.K. educational charity. Every university-educated Prime Minister since 1937 has walked one of the two universities’ halls save Gordon Brown. (Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, both attended top private schools and then Oxbridge, as did approximately two-thirds of their Cabinet.) This isn’t just bad news for the clever, underprivileged students who don’t attend Oxbridge — it’s bad news for Britain, which draws its elites from an artificially narrow pool that is largely cut off from the country at large.

Still, the Pem-Brooke program is a sign of how change may finally be coming to these ancient institutions. Cambridge and Oxford have in recent years ramped up their existing efforts, which got underway over a decade ago, to actively seek out underprivileged students. Oxford now spends $4 million a year on student outreach, up from $1.6 million in 2006–07. While some of that money is still used to recruit from posh private schools, much is spent on school visits and teacher-training sessions aimed at encouraging poor and minority students to apply to the university. In 2010, Oxford also launched a summer school, which gives some 500 academically talented, state-school students a chance to experience studying at Oxford for a week. (Previously, Oxford hosted summer schools for unprivileged students set up and funded by the nonprofit Sutton Trust starting in the late 1990s. Cambridge continues to run and largely fund a Sutton Trust summer school program.) In addition, the university admissions office highly recommends to tutors that qualified students from poor areas be invited for interviews. And it has set a target of increasing the number of undergrads from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas from 6.1% to 9% by 2016–17.

Much of this is due to pressure from outside. In 2010, a Member of Parliament from the left-leaning Labour Party, David Lammy, launched a campaign to encourage diversity at Oxbridge after examining admissions data obtained via freedom-of-information requests. He found that almost 90% of the student body at both universities is drawn from the upper and middle classes, that Oxford accepted only one British black Caribbean undergraduate who declared his or her ethnicity in 2009, and that in 2008 and 2009, Oxford held 21% of its outreach events at private schools, including 12 at Kate Middleton’s school, Marlborough College, and nine at Prince William’s alma mater, Eton College. (State school students were invited.) Lammy’s exposé, which received a flurry of press attention, led Cameron to describe the situation at Oxbridge as “disgraceful.” (His remarks, prefaced by the statement: “I saw figures the other day that showed that only one black person went to Oxford last year,” came under criticism from Oxford and others as inaccurate. One British black Caribbean undergraduate was accepted that year, out of the 27 black undergraduates admitted from the U.K. Cameron’s office responded by noting that the Prime Minister was making a “wider point” about “black and minority ethnic groups” at “universities like Oxford.”)

Around the same time, the government began a push to speed change at Oxbridge. In February 2012, Liberal Democrats in the U.K. coalition government pushed through the appointment of a new head of the independent public body charged with safeguarding fair access to higher education, the Office for Fair Access, Les Ebdon, who has indicated his intention to negotiate “challenging” diversity targets with English universities, in exchange for allowing them to charge up to $14,500 per year in tuition fees.

All told, these efforts seem to be having an effect. Last year, Oxford announced that it accepted a record number of state-school applicants, 57.7%, for the incoming 2011 class. In September 2012, Cambridge announced that it admitted 63.3% state-school students for 2012–13, up from 58% the year before.

Yet critics say while both universities are on the right path, the problem is far from solved. According to the Sutton Trust, about 90% of the “public-school students” accepted by Oxbridge were plucked from schools with above average levels of attainment, including selective grammar schools akin to New York’s famed Bronx High School of Science. And within the universities’ constituent undergraduate colleges — which oversee admissions individually — there are deep inconsistencies in efforts to track down bright underprivileged undergraduates. “There has been progress — colleges like Mansfield at Oxford and King’s at Cambridge are really going out of their way to recruit the best and the brightest wherever they are. But the lion’s share of colleges simply aren’t pulling their weight,” says Lammy. “When you look at the figures across schools, across ethnicity, across region, it’s deeply worrying.”

Pembroke is one college beginning to pull its weight, thanks to the efforts of Professor Claus and others at Pembroke to make equality of opportunity a priority. In September, the college announced a 10-year strategy for outreach to underprivileged students, including the expansion of the Pem-Brooke program to schools in the northwest of England.

But even at Pembroke, these efforts are relatively recent. Until 2008, the college confined itself to the traditional “outreach” activities, opening its halls to potential applicants who cared to come and hosting visiting schoolchildren. This meant, in essence, that the college was preaching to the converted. “Activities that try and get people who were perhaps not thinking about Oxford,” says Mark Fricker, academic director of Pembroke. “Up until the Pem-Brooke scheme [in 2008], our activities in those areas were pretty slim.”

Sitting in Pembroke’s elegant faculty room, Claus, whose warm demeanor belies the stereotype of the aloof Oxford academic, reflects on why Britain’s two oldest universities have come so late to the game. It’s the pressure to publish that keeps academics from throwing themselves into outreach work, he says, balancing a cup of tea. But his own underprivileged background — he came to his history professorship via Ruskin College, an adult-education institution in Oxford — means he’s taken a special interest. “I have to do it,” he says.

(MORE: A Perfect Day … in Oxford)

The centerpiece of the Pem-Brooke project in Hackney, one of the roughest parts of London, is a room similar to an Oxford professor’s study, built right in the heart of BSix. Called the Red Room, it’s meant to get poor students used to the sort of surroundings they might encounter at an Oxbridge admission interview — during which a university academic invites a prospective undergrad into her study, hands him a cup of tea and ruthlessly probes the limits of his intelligence. When the replica professor’s room first hit the papers in March, some in the press called it a gimmick. But Claus says creating an elevating space in the school — a modern building next to a concrete tower block — was crucial. “We wanted to get away from education as training,” he says, referencing the common idea that poor students would be better off learning to be car mechanics or carpenters. “Education is for life.”

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