Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

 You are in: Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Sunday, 4 November, 2001, 13:21 GMT
Does university elitism still exist?
A Cambridge college has defended its decision not to offer a place to a student who gained some of the best Higher results in Scotland.

Gary Sinclair who attended Fortrose Academy on the Black Isle, failed to get a place at Cambridge despite securing straight A-grades in his Higher, Sixth Year Studies and Advanced Higher exams in five subjects.

Mr Sinclair, 18, accused Magdalene College of elitism, saying his state school background had played a part in the decision.

The colleges admissions tutor, Dr Jane Hughes defended their actions and said the allegations were 'frustrating and perplexing'.

Does elitism still exist in society today? Is Cambridge the only place where elitism exists? Does it still play a part in your everyday life?

James Potter from Cambridge, England suggested this Talking Point.
I read with great interest the article about 'elitism' at Magdalene College, Cambridge. As a former comprehensive student now studying maths in Cambridge, I'd like to question whether Mr Sinclair really was good enough.

To send in your Talking Point suggestions, Click here.

This Talking Point is now closed. Read you comments below.

I never encountered any elitism

Roger, UK
I went from a state school to Oxford in 1987. The biggest bar to state school applicants is that people who could get in don't apply. I never encountered any elitism. Obviously, interviews are a bit hit and miss, and no university is only looking at exam results. If your results are much better than expected, take a year out and (re)apply! As has been asked before, which successful candidate should have been rejected, Mr Sinclair?
Roger, UK

My Cambridge interview could probably be summarised with, "So, you're a sociable young man, expecting excellent grades in five A- levels. At a state school. Isn't that quaint?" I can thus sympathise a little, but have subsequently found that my chosen university, Imperial College in London, has an acceptably high international standing, and was far more the place for me. With just about all my friends from home going to Cambridge, I found I could at least get some insight into the differences. He'll look at it later in life and decide he didn't lose out; but maybe they did.
Simon, now in USA

When are people going to learn that one can get a better education in some subjects outside of Oxbridge? The universities aren't so much elitist as the employers who automatically choose an Oxbridge candidate over someone who went somewhere else. Quite honestly one of the most genuinely stupid colleagues I've ever had obtained a 2.1 from an Oxford college. No idea how that was managed. A bright sixth-former would have had better intellectual abilities. Stop whingeing Mr Sinclair! Yes, you have been discriminated against, as is every applicant with outstanding records who is rejected. Do your homework and pick the best place for your subject.
Arri London, EU/USA

The only barrier to state school students is the media telling them that there's no point applying because they'll never get in

Jared Oyston, England
I'm at Christ's College, Cambridge, and I applied here from a state school in the North East of England. The only barrier to state school students is the media telling them that there's no point applying because they'll never get in.
Jared Oyston, England

I am pleased to see that the majority of these comments don't support the claims of the student in question. I too was predicted and received 5 A grades at A-Level but was rejected by my first choice Cambridge college. Fortunately another college picked up my application and I went on to have 3 wonderful years in Cambridge, with my comprehensive background having absolutely no detrimental impact on my time there. From personal experience I can say that pretty much all the colleges are doing what they can to increase their state intakes, but the problem is simply a lack of applications from state schools. More people should be encouraged to apply; unfortunately - with the best will in the world - they won't always get in, but it will not be their state education that prevents them, merely a lack of places.
Andrew, UK

Oxbridge is not just elitist it is down right discriminatory in some cases

Vlad Vaganov, Cambridge, UK
Oxbridge is not just elitist it is down right discriminatory in some cases. My original application failed when I put my state school on the form, but a year later I applied again with a public school listed and was accepted! However I do accept that there are fewer places than the number of grade A students.
Vlad Vaganov, Cambridge, UK

I was a student at Oxford myself, and also previously worked for an examination board. As such, I fully agree that just getting top grades at A level of the Scottish equivalent should not automatically mean an offer of a place at an Oxbridge college. When I applied to Oxford, I had to take the entrance exam, as well as survive an incredibly tough interview procedure. Both involved solving problems which were well above the standard required to get an A grade at A level. Given the small number of available places at colleges, they have no choice but to require higher standards than those contained in straight A's at A-level.
Carole twining, UK

More candidates with good grades than there are places at Oxbridge....when will people realise this? A string of top (predicted) grades is necessary but not sufficient to get a place. I'd like to share a quotation by Richard Dawkins, which I believe shows this whole debate up for the nonsense it is: "Only in Britain would 'elitist' be an insult".
Emma, UK

Merit doesn't end at formal academic qualifications

Michael Entill, UK
The best universities expect not only excellent A-Level results from candidates but also evidence of a commitment to the subject that will be studied, evidence of a full and active life, relevant work experience or other extra-curricular activities, and so on. Candidates who have excellent A-Level results but none of the other attributes may well find themselves rejected. Places are limited and allocated on the basis of merit, but merit doesn't end at formal academic qualifications. There's more. Any candidate who isn't prepared for this may well be disappointed. It's school careers advisors, not the universities, who need to be scrutinised.
Michael Entill, UK

I believe that just because somebody gains good grades at A Level or Highers, this shouldn't automatically entitle them to any University place. Most universities in the UK will interview candidates and the decision of whether to offer a place on a course is only partly influenced by previous exam results. Mr Sinclair probably has a right to ask for an explanation. However, if he thinks that he can simply walk into any institution during his life just by his academic ability, then it sounds like he's going to have to jump back down to reality quite soon!
Phil Bennett, UK

Moaning to the media won't get you in

Alex Banks, UK, living in Ireland
The old adage "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" comes to mind. Obviously Mr Sinclair is unable to quietly accept the fact that like me and millions of others, he can do neither. I am sure he'll find a place at one of the other 13 members of the Russell group of elite universities who teach at the same excellent standards (often even better - Southampton's reputation for Computing exceeds that of Cambridge, and that's one example of many). Moaning to the media won't get you in Mr Sinclair - the case of Laura Spence (the Harvard scholarship winning student rejected by Oxford last year) should have taught you that, and she had the Chancellor on her side. For the record, my transport management degree from Cardiff University is much more highly regarded in the real world than the nearest comparison available for studying at Oxbridge, and I'm grateful I didn't even bother wasting my time applying to either.
Alex Banks, UK, living in Ireland

I went to a public school, and I didn't get into Cambridge or Oxford. Mind you, I got a B and an E for A-level. Seriously though, just getting straight A's means nothing in Oxbridge entrance. Far more people achieve straight A's than there are places at Oxbridge colleges, and so good A-level grades qualify you only to get to the interview stage. Perhaps Mr Sinclair just didn't perform well in the interviews.
Jon, UK

I hope Oxbridge and other good universities maintain a strong commitment to elites: otherwise what is their point?
Susan, UK

The answer is to more adequately fund the other Universities

John, US/UK
The answer to the scarcity of places at Oxbridge is to more adequately fund the twenty to thirty other Universities that have good academic standards.The political decision to dramatically increase the number of Universities was a mistake. The aim of enabling 50% of young people to attend college is unsound.At most only 15% are cabable of genuine University level studies.
John, US/UK

I am torn in my loyalties here. On one hand I'm a state-schooler and I know that Magdalene has a reputation as a haven for rich kids - on the other hand I enjoyed a successful education at Cambridge, and didn't personally feel any negative discrimination - quite the opposite in fact.

People need to realise that the success of Cambridge is all down to the students who go there. I met the most amazing characters at uni, from humble hard-working teetotallers, to flamboyant unsinkable drunkard geniuses. Cambridge is over-subscribed for applicants, especially in Natural Sciences. You've got to accept the risks of the competition. The interviewers need to be tough because each candidate is an investment for the future.

What pains me is that there are a lot of bright state-schoolers who do not apply at all as they think it's 'not for them'.

Russell Moore, UK
Each applicant has two interviews, one for the college, one for the subject. There are no exams - every applicant already has a great track record in that area. But that means the interviewers can't choose on results alone. Especially in the college interview, they have to take into account the attitude and interests (music, sport, drama, arts, debating - who knows?) of the candidate to make a judgement. Not everyone can have a place.

I don't believe the university is being biased in their judgements. Maybe public schools do give more opportunities to develop these non-academic skills, giving their applicants a boost, but if so it's a fault of the schooling system, not the university.

What pains me more is that there are a lot of bright state-schoolers who do not apply at all, as stereotypes/teachers/parents/peers make them think it's 'not for them'. In fact, they are the kind of people today's Oxbridge is looking out for! More applications would, I am certain, increase state-school representation.
Russell Moore, United Kingdom

As the originator of this debate, I'd like to make 3 suggestions:

  • The media start reporting on all the positive work that Oxbridge colleges are doing to encourage state school pupils (including positive discrimination)
  • An A* grade (95% in modules) is created so that real distinctions between top candidates exist (currently, an A is only 80%)
  • People accept that sometimes, either due to bad interviews, bad exams, or the fact that they just haven't got enough potential, they don't get in.
James Potter, Cambridge, U.K.

I for one have decided that my future lies in America where peoples talents are recognised and rewarded accordingly

Seyum, UK
Elitism at university, at work and in society is alive and well. It is a simple fact. I have just finished a postgraduate degree but to the top companies all they care about is whether you have got 24 to 28 UCAS points. I succeded in obtaining my masters degree without any A level background. For British companies to insist a very good A level is more worthy than a post graduate degree shows the malaise in this society in recognising true talent. I for one have decided that my future lies in America where peoples talents are recognised and rewarded accordingly. Britian will continue to decline until we admit and try to remedy the serious problems of elitism, social exclusion, class and race discrimination.
Seyum, UK

I find the whole idea of basing admission on anything other than actual exam results ridiculous. Bring the A-levels forward so that admissions can be based on real results instead.

As for elitism. Let's stop blaming Oxbridge for that and have a look at society as a whole. I was recently in charge of training a new batch of graduates that had been recruited by a large corporation. Rather than hiring graduates with a suitable background (in this case computer studies), they'd hired geography, art, literature etc graduates from Oxford and Cambridge! For some reason, having an Oxbridge education in any old useless subject is supposed to make you better suited for good jobs? That's what's elitist and unfair. When we stop looking at the name of the university that candidates have attended and start looking at their actual qualifications I'm sure that these debates will die out.
Christine, UK

I too applied to Cambridge and was turned down, despite five Grade As at A-level.

Dinah Gordon, UK
Mr Sinclair is clearly a very bitter person to lay the blame for his non-acceptance by Cambridge solely at the feet of the College concerned. I too applied to Cambridge and was turned down, despite five Grade As at A-level. It was also predicted that I would get these grades by my (State Comprehensive) school. I didn't fail to meet their criteria academically - I failed to meet their interview criteria. With the benefit of (more than a few year's) hindsight, I realise now that I was probably quite immature for my age, and unlikely to cope with the rigours of University life. Instead, I worked for a year and got a place at another University. I had a wonderful three years and am now in a career that I thoroughly enjoy. I suspect that, based on the accusations put about by Mr Sinclair, that he also lacks maturity. I suggest that, if Cambridge is his goal, that he waits a year and tries again, but only if he grows up in the meantime.
Dinah Gordon, UK

Oh not this again! Every year it crops up without fail from somewhere. When will people realise that there is more to getting a place in Oxford or Cambridge than where you come from and what grades you have taken? They place great emphasis on character and out-of-classroom activities. Its great to hear that the guy has got loads of A's, but that doesn't mean that Oxford or Cambridge are the right places for him to study. They have to give places to those who will able to take the greatest advantage out of being there. The solution to his problem is to find a place elsewhere and stop blaming elitism that doesn't exist.
Rachel, Uk

Isn't it time to look at the timing of the school academic year?

Sandra Irwin, UK
The College spokesperson explained that the decision was taken using Mr Sinclair's predicted grades. I believe this is a more important issue for all universities. Isn't it time to look at the timing of the school academic year and bringing forward the Higher/'A' Level results? This would allow admission tutors to make decisions based on actual results.
Sandra Irwin, UK

I got in from a Comprehensive school, and didn't feel any form of discriminination. I would love to hear his reasons for thinking that he wasn't given a chance. Sounds like sour grapes to me.
Graham, UK

A candidate at Oxford last year wanted to do medicine but was rejected. Not good enough? Got excellent A-level results, so it's blamed on Oxford's "elitism". But the candidate went on to do biochemistry abroad - not that desperate to do medicine after all, it would seem, so perhaps Oxford's decision was the right one. These are single instances amongst thousands and thousands of candidates. Interviews aren't supposed to be easy and there are limited places.
Dom, England

Cambridge tries very hard to be impartial when choosing successful applicants

Chris, UK
As a Cambridge graduate who went to a state school, I find this sort of complaint really irritating. I'm sorry, but by Oxbridge standards people like this are NOT exceptional in their results. There is more to admission than your most recent exam results. To feel that a string of As somehow qualifies them for admission more highly than the other candidates (most of whom will have a similar string of A grades to their name) is absurd. I know from personal experience that Cambridge tries very hard to be impartial when choosing successful applicants. Sour grapes like this, and the support it gains from major public figures who should know better, just undermine the efforts of many people to keep Oxbridge applications a fair process.
Chris, UK

What a pathetic situation! I have several friends from my (private) school who were not given offers from Oxbridge but who gained 4 or more A grades at A level. Did they whinge? Did they complain that there is an anti-public school feeling amongst universities? No, they either re-applied, or went to another university.
Guy, UK

I come from a comprehensive and took the Oxford maths entrance exam in 1989. Believe me, A-levels were a piece of cake in comparison and this was 12 years ago! The interview was equally tough. Cambridge has every right to select on the basis of an interview. It may appear elitist to some to reject a person with these grades but the fact it's possible to get 5 straight As these days (I have 4) just shows that additional selection methods are necessary.
Tony, UK

There are too many excellent candidates all vying for too few places.

Ebrahim, London
Having been through a similar experience to Mr Sinclair, I can understand his point of view. However, in defense of the college, there are too many excellent candidates all vying for too few places. This problem has two origins the first is the lack of serious funding from Govt, and secondly Oxbridge run an old boy's network which reserves some places for individuals based on creed rather than on ability. I am sure that Mr Sinclair will do well at St Andrews and I for one wish him the best of luck.
Ebrahim, London, UK

Cambridge and Oxford clearly are elitist, having their own entrance exams on top of A levels. When I was thinking of going to university, I decided not to play their game, and instead applied to several other universities. I got my first choice, Birmingham University, where I studied physics. I was very pleased to get my degree from that university, which in my view is every bit as good as Oxford or Cambridge. There are plenty of other really good universities, too. People should stop pandering to the Oxbridge elitist mentality, and start giving them something to think about by refusing to apply to them.
David Hazel, UK

I hope Oxford and Cambridge are elitist, if elitist means taking only the best. It's a shame that they don't have the capacity to accept all of the incredibly gifted students who apply there, but it just wouldn't be possible. No one from either Oxford or Cambridge would deny that there are many other excellent universities and it is people like David Hazel who discourage state school pupils from applying by promoting the unfounded view that the students and the universities themselves hold this belief.

I spent holiday time travelling to state schools to encourage pupils to apply

Linda, UK
I am a former state school and Cambridge student. With the strong backing of both the university and college, I spent holiday time travelling to state schools to encourage pupils to apply and not be put of by ridiculous rumours of favourtism for private school pupils. I therefore find such accusations both damaging and petty. Both universities, like all places of higher education, only want to take the best candidates availiable, whatever their background, and in doing so choices have to be made. What can be wrong with this?
Linda, UK

I think that the top universities are not elitist. Getting grades is not simply good enough for you to gain a place at a University. There are far more aspects to University than academia alone. Would the footlights have produced as many great talents if academic requirements were the only entry guide? There has to be a certain "something" else for people to make it to the top. It sounds like sour grapes and is endemic of today's attitudes that someone is always to blame for an accident or failure.
Jon Parsons, UK

Elitism is part and parcel of going to Cambridge.

Mike Britland, England
Elitism is part and parcel of going to Cambridge. Look at the college which has just told its students not to get drunk! This standpoint clearly shows a large distance between "normal" Universities and their students and that of those who attend Cambridge.
Mike Britland, England

There are many more people who get straight A's than there are places at Oxbridge. One of the few things admissions tutors have to judge students by are the predicted grades. I understand that Mr Sinclair's predictions weren't as high as those who were accepted. This case highlights the absurdity of applying for university places before final results are known. I don't think he's the first student which this has happened to, and, under the current system, he won't be the last.
Graeme, UK

His school record or teachers comments may have gone against him.

Paul, Britain
This is absurd. As a former grammar school student, I can confirm that even if I had straight A's at A-Level, I wouldn't be guaranteed a place at Cambridge. Universities look at the whole person, including attitude, experience, school record, etc. It is not enough to get the results any more, especially with A-levels getting easier (trust me, they are). Can I suggest that Cambridge may not have liked Mr Sinclair's attitude, and if this is the case then these accusations would prove Cambridge right in not accepting him. Even if this is not the case, he may not have had enough experience, or his school record or teachers comments may have gone against him.
Paul, Britain

Universities are all about furthering the education of the best and brightest of our children. It is most fundamentally about elites - if it wasn't the whole thing wouldn't work. It is true that universities have been compelled to lower entrance standards and offer meaningless courses such as "Media Studies", and at the same time examination standards in school education have been lowered to give more people an increasingly worthless piece of paper. This is proven by the high and rising drop-out rate in universities, with students who are simply not capable of handling the work, and in the increasing difficulty companies have in recruiting higlhy educated employees. Universities (and schools) need more elitism, not less, for goodness sake, otherwise we are just producing a generation of graduates with worthless certificates. But there will be lots of them, so the government will be happy.
Euan Gray, UK

The whole idea is ridiculous. Mr. Sinclair and those who support his complaint need to face the fact that when applying to a top university, you are up against the top young people in this country and from abroad. Getting straight A grades is nothing in a situation like this. I would imagine the vast majority of candidates applying for this place will also have acheived the same results or better. Mr. Sinclair wasn't given an offer. That is the fact of the matter. It matters not whether he got straight A grades or straight E grades. He wasn't given an offer.
Will Britton, UK

I'm not exactly clear about this "elitism" claim - surely the whole idea of University education per se is intended to be elitist - you go to University to obtain qualifications that the majority of people do not have - if everyone in the country had a degree there would be no point in having a degree!

But, I agree entirely with Will Britton (UK)'s comments - you will find that just about everybody applying to a University such as Oxford or Cambridge will have very high A level results, but at the end of the day there is a limited number of places. Some people will not get in. I'm sure Mr. Sinclair will be able to get a very valuable and useful further education at another university - it may, however, help his cause if he stopped acting like a jealous kid who is whinging because he can't always have what he wants.
Simon Moore, UK

See also:

30 Oct 01 | Education
Cambridge counters 'elitism' claim
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Talking Point stories