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.

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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.”

The Red Room is certainly different for Odera, Claus’ student, who hopes to study politics at Cambridge. Odera grew up in public housing (known in Britain as a council estate) with her single mother, who left Nigeria in the 1970s and worked three jobs to support her family. They had to share a bedroom, which wasn’t ideal. “As I got older, I thought, What is she doing next to me?” says Odera. Her schooling has been patchy. As a 5-year-old, she often sat by herself in class because she already understood the teacher’s lesson. “Instead of giving me stuff to do that was challenging, they’d leave me out.” In order to attend a good middle school, she arose at 5:30 every morning for a two-hour bus trip across London (she couldn’t afford the train). When she finally made it to a selective public school for bright pupils at age 14, Odera felt like even more of an outsider. “I could count on one hand the number of people who were black in my whole year,” she says. “It was posh. And I just felt like the estate girl, really.”

Odera felt so alienated that she stopped going to school on most days. She considered dropping out and taking a job in hair and beauty. Yet when it came to exams, she still shone, scoring top grades on her General Certificates of Secondary Education — the subject tests British students take at age 16. Still she was dogged by problems, including depression that went undiagnosed until this year. After switching schools again, she left education altogether. Then, she saw BSix while driving in Hackney. She applied and was chosen for Claus’ program. There, Odera has been able to seriously pursue her academics, including her interest in politics. “My family is Nigerian, and my mom was directly affected by the civil war in Nigeria,” she says. “I wondered, Why did Britain support Nigeria and not Biafra? Just all sorts of questions like that came up in my head, and I thought, I want to be a part of this.”

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Pem-Brooke has already helped three Hackney students get into Oxbridge, a first for BSix, while increasing the number of Hackney students getting into other top British universities by over 500% in the past three years. The model has also drawn in 16 other universities to take over the teaching of various subjects to bright students. Its planned hub in the northwest will bring the total of young people it helps to 90 per year. Such resource-intensive aid has its limits, however — no matter how many students the program takes in, it will only affect a relatively small number.

And it is not only the scale of the task that stands in the way of diversifying Oxbridge. In late February, the government’s new diversity czar, Ebdon, suggested that the government might withhold some funding for universities that fail to admit more poor students. The comment sparked a middle-class firestorm. The Sunday Times splashed the headline “Will This Man Stop Your Child Going to a Top University?” across an unflattering picture of Ebdon superimposed over an idyllic Cambridge college. In the photo, Ebdon holds a sign reading, “Please Keep Out — Unless from a Disadvantaged Group, as Approved by the Dept. Social Engineering.” Many of the country’s top universities, including Cambridge, later set ambitious targets for the proportion of admitted state-school students. In response, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), a network of 252 elite British private schools, threatened a boycott of those universities. The head of HMC, Christopher Ray, accused the government of taking a page out of Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House, where in the satirical story “Harrison Bergeron,” citizens are all “of equal strength, intelligence and beauty” by 2081, thanks to the handicapper general, who makes the beautiful wear masks and intelligent people don deafening earphones. “I do wonder who is applying for the post of U.K. handicapper general at the moment,” Ray mused.

Some education experts, however, say this view ignores the advantages conferred by private schooling. “People from state schools, with the same A-levels, do better than people from private schools when they get to university,” says Francis Green, a professor at the Institute of Education, University of London. “Study after study [in peer-reviewed journals] has been finding that that’s the case.” Green says the phenomenon makes sense. “Someone of moderate ability, who is at a private school, gets very well taught, pressured by parents and school teachers alike and get A-levels above their ability level. They then don’t do as well when they get to university, and the conditions they face are exactly the same as the equivalent person who’s just come from a state school. If that is true, there is a logical argument for the universities to take the social background, the school background in particular, of applicants into account.” Green, an Oxford graduate with two daughters who attended Cambridge, says the backlash from independent schools against targets is to be expected. “Of course it would be prejudicing their clients, who are the parents of their children.” The response, he says, is obvious. “It’s still the case that the social-class background of people in the top universities is extremely skewed.” Other education experts and officials at Cambridge cite studies that conclude that, in fact, the brightest state school students do not outperform their equally high-performing private-school-educated peers at top universities.

It’s not just head teachers and wealthy parents who object, however. Oxbridge itself has largely stuck to the conviction that changing standards to facilitate social mobility would violate the universities’ core missions. “As institutions charged with education, research and training, our purpose is not to be engines for promoting social justice,” said Alison Richard, the vice chancellor (at the time) of Cambridge in 2008. “Promoting social mobility is not our core mission, which is to provide an outstanding education.”

Critics say Oxford and Cambridge’s focus on admitting the most academically accomplished misses the larger role the universities play in Britain. “All our studies show that Oxford and Cambridge graduates dominate society. They don’t go on to be academics, largely, they go on to do other things. So in effect, it’s a bit of a fallacy,” says Lee Elliot Major, the director of development and policy at the Sutton Trust. Major points out that it doesn’t have to be this way. “The leading universities in the world — the Ivy Leagues — have an incredibly progressive attitude toward this agenda. What they say they’re in is the value-added business — it’s about creating leaders. Oxford and Cambridge see their mission in the world as fundamentally different from those of the Ivy Leagues. I think that’s at the heart of this.”

Lammy points out that taxpayer-funded Oxford and Cambridge have even more of an obligation to address social inequality than their private American counterparts. “In the end, these are public institutions in receipt of serious amounts of public money,” says Lammy. In addition to their regular government funding, Oxford and Cambridge are the only undergraduate universities in the country to receive an extra $11 million to sustain their unique one-on-one teaching system. “If they were private institutions, you could argue they can do whatever the hell they want. But if they take taxpayers’ money, then I do think it’s legitimate to press them on these issues.”

Back at BSix, those involved with the Pem-Brooke project say they want their students to be admitted to top colleges on their own merits, rather than their background. “We don’t want any concessions from anybody,” says Ken Warman, the principal of BSix, who made his own way from poverty to Oxford decades ago. “It’s not a good message for our students. Would you be as confident if you were let in because of where you were from?”

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For Odera, building confidence has been a slow process. “My mum and dad didn’t go to university. It’s a scary thought,” she says. “It’s kind of like, Who am I to apply?” After college, Odera wants to help raise aspirations among young women from poor backgrounds. “I think people don’t work as hard because they think, I’m not going to get there anyway. I felt like that, and it took me a long time to realize that’s not the case because of the support I had,” she says. “I want to give that back.” Eventually, she hopes to become a Member of Parliament. First, however, she needs to finish her application to Cambridge. She worries her childhood troubles may have already compromised her as a candidate. Still, she knows that with her grades, her passion for politics and Claus’ help, there’s a chance. “That’s what I’m trying to hold on to,” she says. “My worry is, is it too late?” It won’t be long until she finds out — Cambridge announces its admissions decisions this month.

This article has been changed. An earlier version stated that Oxford University accepted “only one black Caribbean student” in 2009, when in fact the university accepted one British black Caribbean undergraduate who declared his or her ethnicity when applying to Oxford. The article has also been amended to reflect the context for comments made by British Prime Minister David Cameron on the number of black students at Oxford. It has also been changed to reflect the fact that in 2009 Oxford “held” rather than “targeted” 21% of its outreach events at private schools, and that it draws the majority of its non-private students from public schools with above average levels of attainment, rather than “elite public schools.”  An amendment was made to indicate that Office for Fair Access director Les Ebdon has not imposed but intends to negotiate targets with universities. It has been corrected to indicate that every university-educated Prime Minister save Gordon Brown has attended Oxford or Cambridge since 1937, rather than throughout history. The proportion of Oxbridge graduates in David Cameron’s cabinet has been updated — following the Prime Minister’s September reshuffle, the percentage rose from almost 40% to two-thirds. Percentages on leading Oxbridge graduates have been updated to reflect the latest figures. The article erred in stating that private school students have “dominated” Oxbridge for “centuries.” In the 1970s, according to Cambridge, admissions of state school students ranged from 62% to 68%, sinking down to around 50% in the 1980s. The article has been amended to clarify that although only a small percentage of British students are privately educated, they make up one-third of the students with the requisite qualifications to apply to Oxbridge. The article erred in stating that Oxford and Cambridge “missed government admission targets” for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Rather, the universities scored below “benchmarks” for admission of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds which are calculated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a non-governmental body. The article was amended to clarify the point that Cambridge continues to run Sutton Trust summer schools. The article mistakenly suggested that the current U.K. government had launched an “initiative to reform Oxbridge.” There was no official initiative, but rather a marked push by the government to encourage change. The article referred to Cambridge and Oxford’s efforts “in the past two years” to seek out underprivileged students. In fact, their commitment is far more long-standing — programs to reach out to underprivileged students have been operating at the two universities since at least the mid-1990s. The article erred in suggesting that Cambridge had protested state school targets, and in stating that it had “agreed to” ambitious targets, rather than setting the targets themselves that were then approved by the Office of Fair Access. The article has been amended to clarify that there is debate over whether the ‘school effect’, whereby state school students outperform private school students at university, applies to those at the highest levels of achievement, from which Oxford and Cambridge recruit. The article has been changed to correct the misstatement that a lack of strong candidates from poor backgrounds is not the concern of Oxford and Cambridge. The article has amended the phrase “Oxford and Cambridge’s myopic focus on cherry-picking the most academically accomplished,” to more fairly reflect the universities’ approach.

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