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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 14:10 GMT 15:10 UK
Is Oxbridge elitist?
The British Government has put universities on notice: they either take in more students from state schools or face penalties. The announcement is set to intensify the row over admissions, sparked last week by the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Mr Brown described as a "scandal" a decision by Oxford University to turn down an application from a girl from a state school who then went on to get a scholarship at Harvard University, in the USA. He suggested Laura Spence had been denied a place because she had fallen foul of "an old establishment interview system".

But the opposition Conservative Party accused Labour of launching a class war and labelled as "absurd" the idea that there is a deliberate policy of discrimination against state schools when it comes to university admissions.

We asked whether you thought Oxbridge and other top-flight universities were dominated by an establishment clique, which favoured students from the "right" social class? Or was the British government making a populist appeal to its supporters by bashing one of the country's "bastions of privilege"?


Your reaction

It is about time someone condemned Oxford as a bastion of elitism. Ivy League schools in the US are just as guilty. However, the admission of a few working class Americans and racial minorities has allowed these institutions to avoid the scrutiny they deserve. Watch out for Oxford to implement minor changes to create the illusion of fairness and equality, but without radical reform these institutions will remain as elitist at heart as they ever were.
Keith, USA

Oxford and Cambridge are not intentionally elitist, in my opinion. However, they do attract a large number of public school pupils. This is clearly because of the resources available at public schools, and those that attend public schools tend to be from well off families. One point that does need making is that the release of the interview details of Laura Spence to the media was highly unethical. I would be very angry if my details were published to all and sundry like that!
Ben, UK


God help us all if she fails her driving test

Bryce, UK
Most respondents here seem to have forgotten the fact that the Laura Spence furore stemmed from the fact that she was stereotyped as "underconfident" by one interviewer who judged that this lack of confidence was typical of comprehensive students. It was really this statement alone that revealed the prejudice prevalent at Oxford and other "top" universities. Yet university places have long been awarded on the basis of interviews and background.
Felicity, USA

I always remember what my tutor at Oxford said to me when I asked about this very subject. He told me that considering how long the average tutor at Oxford (or Cambridge) has spent studying and immersing themselves in their subject, they were not merely looking for people who were academically brilliant, but for those who could think. Whilst somebody might achieve A grades their whole lives, this does not mean that they will be able to form an objective and personal opinion. My tutor said that he was looking for people who would be interesting for him to teach, and not just those who could regurgitate memorised opinions and facts.
Katherine Chapman, England

In my view, most of the criticisms about class discrimination in Oxford are lies. I went up to Oxford in 1974 from a fairly posh public school - St Paul's - and met no-one, I repeat no-one, in my college from public school. Some colleges were public school oriented - Magdalen was one, then, but I found myself discriminated against on the grounds I was supposedly posh. I hated Oxford and it was partly the discrimination against public schoolboys that was to blame. I note that most of the critics never went to Oxford (too stupid to get in, I suppose)
Tim Hedges, England

God help us all if she fails her driving test.
Bryce, UK

When a lot of my friends applied for Universities, 5 applied for Oxford and Cambridge. Four of those five got in and they all attended a north-east comprehensive school. Every year students from this school are excepted to these Universities. You have to expect rejection if you're applying for some of the most sort-after places.
Gregg Stevens, UK


I wonder if the recent government initiative on this could be a well calculated (cynical) manoeuvre to draw our attention away from the Dome?

Ewan Thomson, UK
My boyfriend went to Oxford to study law. He attended a comprehensive school and is the son of a builder. The suggestion that oxford discriminate on the grounds of class is stupid. They are only interested in ability.
Rachel Peterken, England

I wonder if the recent government initiative on this, lets face it, hardly pressing and yet definitely controversial point, could be a well calculated (cynical) manoeuvre to draw our attention away from the Dome (er... remember it? Big white thing. Half a billion pounds of public funding). By the looks of things, highly successfully.
Ewan Thomson, UK


Mr Brown would do well to note that Britain's schools will continue to fail their children until politics and fads are removed from the system.

Jeremy H, UK
Gordon Brown appears to have been rather economical with the facts concerning elitism at Oxford and Cambridge. Firstly, it should be recollected that it was he, as Chancellor, who no doubt supported the Labour Government's introduction of university fees. No other step in recent years has been potentially more elitist. Secondly, he failed to mention that Oxford and Cambridge accept the same proportion of state school students as apply. Thirdly, he also omitted to disclose that most colleges adopt a more or less formal system of positive discrimination towards state school applicants in their point scoring process.
The fault thus lies primarily with the culture of under-ambition, low expectations and under-achievement pervading the state education system and is by no means alleviated by the Government's own education policies. Mr Brown would do well to note that Britain's schools will continue to fail their children until politics and fads are removed from the system. He might also wonder why Mr. Blair is so quiet on the subject.
Jeremy H, UK

If this government is so committed to opening up universities to everyone, why have I just typed a "goodbye and good luck" letter to one more student who has had to abandon her degree after a year because she cannot study and work to support herself?
Rita Gallard, UK

I was at Cambridge 10 years ago, coming from a state school. I was lucky I got a decent grant. However, now I would need to have a term-time job to make ends meet due to Labour's sell-out of working class children's education. But at Cambridge you are banned from having a job in term time as the terms, at 8 weeks, are shorter than other universities. Elitist, probably. Out of touch with the realities of being a student, definitely yes.
Kathleen, London

Oxford turned down my application - therefore they must be elitist pigs. I've got my job in the City now so I don't care.
John S., UK


If Labour is so committed to anti-elitism, how come their party leader is the one with the Oxford degree?

Jane, Somerset
How many other universities in the UK with excellent medical schools did this girl apply for? It appears that in choosing Oxford and then Harvard instead of these other UK schools, she demonstrates elitism perfectly. As for the government, given that a high percentage of them are public school boys who themselves went to Oxbridge, it appears a bit rich to complain.
Ian, Scotland

Perhaps Laura has learned the most useful lesson of all. How did her story get to the papers? Was it her, her head teacher or her MP? Whoever it was, the story was latched onto, and turned into a media bubble because there wasn't anything much else for the papers at the time, and her cause was a good one for an ailing Labour Party losing touch with its grass roots. It has nothing to do with Laura, her abilities, or her future, at all. Indeed, it's nothing to do with Oxbridge either.
Sally Gregg, UK

If Labour is so committed to anti-elitism, how come their party leader is the one with the Oxford degree?
Jane, Somerset

I support Gordon Brown. The leaked interview notes show that Laura was seen as being sufficiently bright for the place, but lacked confidence. Thus Oxford has excluded a pupil on non-academic and (unwittingly) prejudicial grounds, since equally bright pupils from private schools often benefit from an environment which fosters greater confidence. This is taxpayers' money - Oxford must reform quickly or lose it.
Jonathan Farrington, UK


Many students applying for medicine are rejected each year, regardless of their grades

Rebecca Gibbon, England
Does Mr Brown really think he encouraged state school students to go to (any) university when he abolished student grants?
Barry, UK

As an undergraduate at Oxford who went to a comprehensive, I find the Government's statements utterly offensive. Let's face it, no one applies to Oxbridge without good exam results - not everyone who applies gets a place. If the Government were so concerned about the state/private/independent mix in Oxbridge, then they would improve the standards of teaching in comprehensives, so that more comprehensive pupils could apply and stand a better chance of getting accepted.
Anthony Fairclough, UK

Why no comment on the "brilliant" students from private schools who are turned down by Oxbridge? I worked as PA to the Head of a girls' private school and recall very clearly straight A students who were rejected. One, in particular, had 13 As at O Level and 5 As predicted (which she achieved) at A Level. So where's the so-called bias to private schools, then, if such students are turned down?
Carol O'Neill, UK

Laura Spence may be an extremely bright and able student, and she was probably intent on studying at Oxford, but let's not blow this out of all proportion Mr Brown. There are people starving to death, whilst a war rages in the north of Ethiopia. I believe that more efforts should be being made to help these wretched people, and less time spent worrying about such trivial matters.
Charlie, UK

Excellent grades at A level aren't the only criterion for entry to university to read medicine. Medicine is an extremely competitive degree. The interview is vital in discovering a candidate's ability to reason, insight into medicine as a career etc. Many students applying for medicine are rejected each year, regardless of their grades. I am a medical student in London and attended a state school. When I applied to university, two others in my year also applied. We all received offers despite comparatively low grades of ABB. This illustrates that grades are only part of the admissions process for medicine.
Rebecca Gibbon, England


The real scandal is that a Scottish Chancellor representing a Scottish constituency is prepared to allow the Scottish Parliament to abolish university tuition fees at the expense of English taxpayers

John, England
If equality of educational opportunity is the goal, then surely the debate must be wider than the intake of a mere two universities? It is blatantly elitist to take Oxford and Cambridge and treat them as special cases, and in so doing ignore the excellent education available at dozens of other UK universities.
A. Alexander, UK

The real scandal is that a Scottish Chancellor representing a Scottish constituency is prepared to allow the Scottish Parliament to abolish university tuition fees at the expense of English taxpayers. If he wants equality of access, not just for the Scottish elite which now runs England (Brown, Cook, Blair, Lord Irvine), he should put up the cash to pay for the fees of English students too.
John, England

Maybe she came across so badly at her interview that she was viewed as unsuitable. There is not point in being clever if you can't get your point across at an interview. How stupid to go to the press - now she will only be remembered as the clever girl who couldn't get into Oxford. I doubt very much that it had anything to do with her schooling, probably more to do with her attitude.
Lydia Walton, England


How stupid to go to the press - now she will only be remembered as the clever girl who couldn't get into Oxford

Lydia Walton, England
Very unfortunate situation, if the girl had the qualifications she should have been accepted. This is the 21st century, the 'old boy' system is long outdated, kids should be accepted on merit whatever school they came from. Shame on you Oxford and Cambridge! Wake up to the real world.
Sue Burrowes, USA

I think the only elitism in this story is on the part of Laura Spence. She clearly had it in her mind to go to a 'top' university, so when Oxford turned her down she went for Harvard. But there are plenty of good universities in the UK which she obviously didn't consider. So who's being elitist?
Phil, Southampton, UK


Going from Eton to Magdalen is no real change, but going from state is like Torquay United playing away at Old Trafford

Neil Walsh, England
It should also be pointed out that public school students are far more comfortable in the surroundings and environment of Oxford's ancient spires (buildings and staff) than their state school counterparts. Going from Eton to Magdalen is no real change, but going from state is like Torquay United playing away at Old Trafford.
I was scared witless when I went for my interview at Magdalen, the grounds, the city, the academics, the tradition, was a world away from Birkenhead and Prenton Park. The whole process needs to be looked at and made less Eton-centric.
Neil Walsh, England

The recent reports of an Oxford college's rejection of an applicant from a comprehensive school offer no support to the suggestion that Oxford is elitist unless it can be shown that the rejection of applicants from state schools is a persistent feature of Oxford's admission procedures.
There is no convincing evidence that it is such a feature. Many who have graduated from Oxford (or Cambridge) will be aware of the anti-Oxbridge bias that they can encounter in later life. This says much more about those who like to rejoice in real or imagined Oxford shortcomings than it says about the institution itself.
John, UK

All applicants have brilliant, excellent exam results. There are more applicants than places. Sadly some come away with badly bruised egos, and no doubt with parents who were looking for a little elitism through being able to brag about an offspring at Oxbridge.
Enter the ridiculous media and a very foolish politician. Neither bothered with the real problem, the applicants who are not accepted are never the less "pretty good" and the UK should be working at making the best of them, not indulging in pathetic sniping at Oxbridge.
JJ Lord, Qatar


I thought that the whole point is that Oxbridge is elitist

Marc Sheppard, UK
I thought that the whole point is that Oxbridge is elitist. The next stage is to downgrade the degrees to the lowest denominator.
The government what to increase tuition fees for "better" universities. The effect would be to render these even more for the well off.
Marc Sheppard, UK

Yet more spin from the politicians, making an issue out of nothing to gain capital for the next election. It doesn't matter if she got a scholarship to a USA uni and not into Oxbridge. Many of my friends who were accepted turned Oxbridge down due to better courses being offered elsewhere. Whilst not deriding Oxbridge, the aura that their degrees are automatically the best in the world is now being worn away.
Richard, England


Why doesn't the government face up to the fact that a misrepresentation of state school pupils in top universities is more a reflection on the inadequacies of the state education system

Neil Matthews, England
Rather than making a scapegoat of this latest case in its socialist crusade, why doesn't the government face up to the fact that a misrepresentation of state school pupils in top universities is more a reflection on the inadequacies of the state education system than evidence of an underlying class war?
Neil Matthews, England

My daughter has been offered a place at Cambridge this year after having won a choral scholarship. She still had to pass the interview stage. She is certainly not the brightest in the school but she does have good all round abilities with wide ranging interests, which is why I believe she was accepted over others. I would be interested to know what percentage of students from state as opposed to private schools a) Do not complete the degree course and b) Obtain 1st class degrees.
Christopher Baker, Bahamas

I think Oxford and Cambridge should stay the way they are, as special institutions. There are enough other universities to go to.
T. Van Duren, The Netherlands

I am a parent who spends more than half my income paying for my daughter to receive a decent education. This is due to the incompetence and arrogance of the UK Government who are refusing a proper education to the majority of our children. The hypocrisy of Blunkett et al in proposing to discriminate against my family as a solution to their own stupidity and broken promises is breathtaking.
Neil Bowerman, England


I am currently studying in Oxford having been at a state school

Andrew, UK
I am currently studying in Oxford having been at a state school. At no point when I applied did it cross my mind that I would be discriminated against for being from the state sector. It is not in the best interests of the University to reject outstanding students just because of the type of school they went to, consequently it does not happen.
Andrew, UK


As usual, the losers blame the system

M. Conomos, Australia
If I don't get a job after an interview do I get Gordon Brown to close down the company or impose sanctions? No. The Labour Party just get worse!
Graham, England

Straight A's does not mean that the pupil is brilliant. Oxbridge recognises that and subjects every applicant to an interview. Unfortunately, the person in question failed that interview. Nothing will change the fact that Oxford and Cambridge have been and will remain the top universities in the world. The US "Ivy League" universities are simply based on the Oxbridge style of education.
Dr. James Cameron, US

This whole issue is just absolute rubbish! This is tabloid nonsense to stir up some frenzied hatred toward the financially well off. Surely we want to give the best people the opportunity to become our doctors and scientists, not a B-class candidate simply because they're from a minority group. If Laura Spence really, truly, wanted to do medicine at Oxford, how come she is now choosing to study a totally different subject? Harvard decided against giving her a scholarship into medicine as well, so don't hail them as the heroes of the piece. Well done Oxford for standing your ground.
Rebecca White, London, UK

As usual, the losers blame the system.
M. Conomos, Australia


Of course, Laura is talented and bright, but she was presumably up against nine other candidates, at least one of whom was more impressive than her

Iain Hollingshead, UK
I fail to understand why Laura, her headmaster and Gordon Brown have tried to make such a big issue out of this. No one seems to have mentioned that medicine is one of the most over-subscribed courses at Oxford - probably with a ratio of 10:1 applicants to places. Of course, Laura is talented and bright, but she was presumably up against nine other candidates, at least one of whom was more impressive than her. Perhaps the Americans (and others) would have done well to consider these facts before moving so swiftly to condemn a system they do not understand.
Iain Hollingshead, UK

The fact that Prince Edward got into Cambridge with pathetic grades is not evidence that Oxbridge is elitist. The royals get special treatment everywhere in Britain simply because they're royalty. If you don't like it, join the campaign to abolish the monarchy.
Duncan Pasley, UK

On the subject of academic elitism, it may also be worth noting that when it comes to which graduate of what University gets offered a job, the Oxbridge graduate with a third class degree will always get the job before the red brick graduate with the first.
Aidan, Brit in the USA


It is my friends at Durham and Bristol who speak of people turning up in stretch limos to lectures

Jon, Cambridge, UK
Can anyone imagine a UK university awarding a student a £65,000 scholarship? Top US universities are awash with the best brains and facilities money can buy, and many top UK academics head across the pond precisely for the better funding and facilities on offer. The only mistake Laura made was to not apply to Harvard first.
Vince, UK

From the experience of friends of mine who have gone on from Cambridge to postgraduate work in the US, and have come into contact with undergraduates through teaching, the standard of even the best US universities is well below many UK institutions at undergraduate level. Sure, the US government pours money into research and as a result this area is excellent, but some US degrees are little more than extended "A" Levels.

The fact is, as has been said before, Oxbridge cannot take everyone with 3 A's. Cambridge and Oxford are very competitive, stressful places and not everyone will thrive in such an environment. In my experience, and I speak as a Cambridge educated, former state school pupil from rural East Anglia, Cambridge is full of dedicated, ordinary people who got where they are through hard work. It is my friends at Durham and Bristol who speak of people turning up in stretch limos to lectures.
Jon, Cambridge, UK


Could somebody remind me what Prince Edward's A-Level grades were to get him into Cambridge? Was it two C's and one D or two D's and one C? Elitist? Of course it is.

Trev, UK
I am an American who was rejected by the Rhodes Scholarship programme and accepted by Oxford directly. I now live in the UK and consider myself "almost" British. My children will apply to both Oxbridge and American universities. We know there is great competition out there and we applaud those universities that seek diversity and quality. In the Spence case, it looks as though both Oxford and Harvard sought diversity and quality. Harvard was able to achieve both. This does not mean that Oxford made the wrong decision.
Tom Skwarek, UK

This young lady apparently failed the interview. People fail job interviews every day of the week, even though they may well be the person best qualified for the position. This story smacks of political points scoring.
Andrew, UK

Could somebody remind me what Prince Edward's A-Level grades were to get him into Cambridge? Was it two C's and one D or two D's and one C? Elitist? Of course it is.
Trev, UK


What seems to be missing in this debate is the fact that the top level of the US higher education system, such as Harvard and Yale, is based on a British model of elitism and exclusion

Binta Jeffers, USA
It is untrue to say that Oxbridge is for the elite. My son has just been offered a place at Cambridge and in our whole family, only I had university education in Hong Kong and we live in an ordinary apartment. My wife and I both have to work to support our family and we use our savings to pay for our son's education.
Daniel Chan, Hong Kong

The key question should be - are more and more people's talents being really stretched and allowed to grow? Oxbridge elitism is outdated and an anachronism in 2000. The sooner real meritocracy comes the better!
David Alan, U.K.

What about the poor, black American student who will now be denied a place at Harvard? And who, incidentally, would have to pay through the nose for a Harvard degree. Seeing as people are so concerned about elitism, I find it surprising that they have not been supporting campaigns to abolish tuition fees. Also, I believe attention should be focused on individual colleges - no-one has highlighted the considerable differences in the profiles of individual colleges at Oxbridge.
AHK, UK

It is about time that Oxford woke up to the fact that it is funded by the Tax Payers of this country and therefore should ensure that all Tax Payers receive equal treatment. At present the selection system is intolerable. I would vote now for removal of some state funding!
SL, UK


I have only praise for the way in which Oxford has reached out to my community and my students

DH Frost, Wales/Cymru
As a Guidance Tutor at a large, state Sixth Form in the heart of South Wales, with students from many disadvantaged areas, I have only praise for the way in which Oxford has reached out to my community and my students. I simply do not recognise the picture being painted of an 'elitist' backward approach to selection.
Certainly it would help no one if such posturing meant damage to the standards of our best national universities. Attention should shift to why our state schools have less resources, and why we are always so centred on 'results' and 'syllabuses' instead of truly stretching students. I expected better of Gordon Brown.
DH Frost, Wales/Cymru

We should stop worrying about whether these institutions are elitist or not, and concentrate instead, on ensuring that standards in every other university in the land is equally good, if not better. Once that is achieved, such institutions would simply become as irrelevant as Eton or Harrow have become, to the education of our children.
Ubong Effeh, UK

Let's face it, 14 double plus A-levels just are not what they used to be. The UK Government has made Exams so easy these days that Grades are almost irrelevant, what matters is personality, energy and enthusiasm. As for trying to portray the US as having a classless admissions policy, think again, Cash is king.
David, USA


The 'black art' of interviewing is clearly being abused by Oxford University to discriminate against Comprehensive candidates

Simon Watkins, Wales, UK
Most of the comments seem to presume that interviewing techniques are a valid way of determining the best candidate. We surely all know that this is nonsense. People who believe that their interviewing skills can uncover the true psyche, strike me as arrogant, egotistic fools. It's very clear that relying solely on interviews merely gives the opportunity for candidates of a particular personality to shine; we all know people who have the gift of the gab, but lack real intellectual substance. Life already treats these people with a myriad of advantages.
The 'black art' of interviewing is clearly being abused by Oxford University to discriminate against Comprehensive candidates. Gordon Brown's remarks were timely and it's about time something were done about the issue, regardless of the whinging from the old boy network who wish to maintain the status quo.
Simon Watkins, Wales, UK

The entire point of the Oxford interview process is to look for qualities in a student not tested by national examinations. Because almost all of the applicants for the (small number of) places have qualifications similar to those of this candidate, the interviewers are seeking something more.
As a student at Cambridge, I see that the qualities sought in interview are essential to being successful here. There are plenty of people with straight A grades who would not succeed in the peculiar environment of Oxbridge. Probably it is for the better that this candidate is going elsewhere as the qualities described from the interview would not lead to a successful time at Oxford.
Robin Payne, Cambridge, UK


The odds are that this year there was also at least one American student who was rejected by Harvard and accepted by Oxford

Richard, UK
On the basis of one case, Gordon Brown has contrived to provoke a political storm for his own party's ends, and the great British public has obliged with a hysterical and exaggerated reaction. The odds are that this year there was also at least one American student who was rejected by Harvard and accepted by Oxford; Laura's case proves nothing in isolation.
Certainly, the proportion of ex-state school pupils attending Oxford should be higher, but the fact that it isn't must have more to do with Labour's discriminatory student loans policy than Oxford's admissions procedures. If you were looking for votes on this one, Gordon, bad luck. You're now less likely to get mine.
Richard, UK

I cannot take many of the comments expressed above seriously. Of course Oxbridge is elitist. Which other establishments let those from their Royal Family in irrespective of their grades. It's about time Oxbridge learnt the basics of a meritocracy.
Martin, UK

Setting up Oxford as a scapegoat is merely a means of deflecting attention from this government's lack of success in tackling the continued underfunding of both universities and especially secondary schools in this country. Brown and Blunkett might reflect that they, not Oxford, are the stumbling blocks to opportunity.
George Williamson, UK


A friend of mine applied to Oxford five years ago. He was told that 'we don't get many of your sort here'

ST, UK
When I applied to Cambridge, eight years ago, I was treated in a condescending manner. Other universities were polite, friendly and interested in me, not my school or my parents' income.
A friend of mine applied to Oxford five years ago. He was told that "we don't get many of your sort here." The implication, clearly, was that he wouldn't fit in so he wouldn't be welcome at Oxford.
Unsurprisingly, we are both products of state schools with good A Level results and now graduates of a good 60s university. Our advice to today's state school sixth-formers is to ignore Oxbridge, leave it to the public school kids. Not only will you be welcomed at universities such as Warwick, York and Lancaster but they will have fewer public school kids with an attitude as they will all be at Oxbridge!
ST, UK

I came from an underfunded comprehensive in the South Wales valleys, one of Europe's poorest areas. My GCSEs were frankly mediocre compared to this girl's; 4 A, 6B, 1C. Most of my teachers were highly sceptical that I would get an offer. Yet Jesus College Oxford gave me a chance because I spoke up at interview and thought about the questions being put to me, and three years down the track I am now mere days away from my finals, and I have had the time of my life here.
The interview is a blank slate; it gives people who may not have done as well as they should have in exams in the past a chance to demonstrate insight and problem solving ability.
Ross Manning, UK

I think it is sad that Oxford can turn down a person who has straight A's in all subjects - they did that almost 20 years ago to my sister who was a grade A student. Good luck in the USA, you are better off there.
Simon McGhee, UK


The entire issue seems to have as much to do with how an individual will fare at Oxford rather than where they have come from or how they have performed

ER, UK
This has more to do with the fact that, good as Laura Spence is, Oxford was able to pick candidates that were better still academically. Also as an Oxford interview made her uncomfortable enough to be 'quiet' and 'reticent', the logical conclusion is that education at Oxford would not necessarily be the best atmosphere for her to continue her education.
The entire issue seems to have as much to do with how an individual will fare at Oxford rather than where they have come from or how they have performed, in which case Laura Spence has certainly been done a favour. As for positive discrimination, this will lead to able students being rejected in favour of less able simply to fill the quotas correctly. This can surely not be good if the UK really does want to keep the best of the best.
ER, UK

There is something seriously wrong with a system that allows entry to be bought. I don't believe for one second that private schools (7% of pupils in the UK) can really supply 50% of Oxbridge entrants on merit. It shows that if you happen to be stupid, but the child of a rich Lord, you can jump the queue.
Pete B, UK

Europe screws up and America gains from the windfall. Some things never change - and never should.
T.J. Cassidy, USA


All of this talk is scaring me and I sincerely do hope that such prejudice does not occur or else I'm off home!

Chris, UK
I'll be applying for Oxbridge this year and I got 8A*s and 2As at GCSE and am currently predicted to get high grades for my 5 A-levels. All of this talk is scaring me and I sincerely do hope that such prejudice does not occur or else I'm off home!
However, a similar thing happened to a friend of mine - he got 4As and a B at A-level and straight A and A* grades at GCSE. However, he also chose to do Chemistry at Cambridge and was rejected. I think that Chemistry is perhaps not the best subject to choose and this is probably another reason for why Laura failed to get in. However, she has done extremely well with her Harvard application. Nice one!
Chris, UK

A rather ham-fisted attempt by our intrepid chancellor to win the Northern Comprehensive Student vote. Oxford have been choosing students for 700 years without input from New Labour. No need to meddle now.
Dom, England

This story reminds me of "Jenny's Ear" in the 1992 General Election. One individual is selected from literally hundreds to illustrate a particular point with little or no regard to the wider picture or to any other factors that may have been present.
As far as the issue is concerned, it is in the universities or college's best interests to chose the best candidates regardless of background. Remember, the quality of undergraduates has a knock on effect on postgraduates and research. Oxford and Cambridge may be ahead at the moment, but other universities like Manchester, Bath, Southampton, etc are snapping at their heels.
Justin Theed, England


I got 4 A grades at A-Level, but Oxford rejected me. I was at private school - surely this shows the lack of elitism?

Rupert, UK
Exam grades count for nothing. I got 4 A grades at A-Level, but Oxford rejected me. I was at private school - surely this shows the lack of elitism? In fact Oxford is worrying so much about its image that it is negatively discriminating against private school. So Laura Spence should just face the facts that Oxford did not want to teach her.
Rupert, UK

I was recently offered a place to study Law at Oxford having gone through the much criticised interview system. While I believe that there is no deliberate discrimination against people from less wealthy backgrounds, I am sure that the fact that I was a white, confident, articulate male maybe gave me an unfair advantage in the interview.
Luke Mason, UK

Consequently, the UK literally ends up exporting one of its brighter children. It's really a national tragedy when you think about it...
Kanishk Priyadarshi, USA


When politicians exaggerate one very isolated case, it deals a blow to our efforts to turn the situation around

Chinmaya Nagaraja, Secretary, Oxford Access Scheme, UK
I am an American, and have lived in London for nearly five years. I do not find the case of Laura Spence at all surprising. As the Oxbridge colleges fall further down the league tables and in international credibility, they continue with the same exclusionary policies. We in the USA are only too happy to continue to be sent Britain's brightest and finest.
Robert Rawson, England

The media seem to have an obsession with the proportion of privately educated students at Oxbridge. Why do they not take a look at other 'red brick' universities such as Bristol, Edinburgh and Durham where the proportion of state school students is significantly less than that of either Oxford or Cambridge?
John Brunner, UK

I am secretary of the Oxford Access Scheme, the student-led initiative that aims to widen access to Oxford University. My colleagues and I work very hard to help the university in its aims to widen access, and most colleges take part in our schemes, such as the "student shadowing" programme, special open-days, and the pioneering summer schools.

When politicians exaggerate one very isolated case, it deals a blow to our efforts to turn the situation around. It also reflects badly on individual colleges, like Magdalen, as their hard work and achievements in increasing access are not recognised.
Chinmaya Nagaraja, Secretary, Oxford Access Scheme, UK


I wish the best of luck to the girl and hope that once she experiences the freedom of opportunity in the USA she will never wish to return

Justin Morgan, Hungary
Gordon Brown should mind his own business, get on with his own job and destroy a few more British businesses.
David De Burgh, Spain

Same old Britain, same old story. Will it never change? It's time the country woke up to the fact that if it doesn't do away with this kind of class distinction then the "brain drain" will continue. I wish the best of luck to the girl and hope that once she experiences the freedom of opportunity in the USA she will never wish to return.
Justin Morgan, Hungary

The greatest surprise to me is that anyone would expect anything other than unfair discrimination from Oxbridge. I am just thankful that I went to a University which was prepared to even the score a little in the opposite direction.
Peter Balcombe, UK

As an ex selector of students for medical school, I would comment how dreadful the interview is in assessing potential but little is known about how to improve on it. Could a university or medical school consider asking headhunters to find students who would make, for example, good doctors? I wonder what the GMC would think of such an approach.
Tony Davis, English living in France

As a prospective Oxbridge applicant myself (from a northern comprehensive), I find the Chancellor's comments are naive in the extreme. Oxbridge looks for excellence, not social class, and as several of your correspondents mentioned, the nature of the GCSEs is such that not every student with straight A grades can gain a place; competition is fierce and students require much more than pure academic ability.
Iain, Manchester, UK

Many of my friends from public and private schools failed to get into Oxbridge despite having 10 A* GCSEs each and up to four predicted A grade "A" levels each. Almost everyone who applies has the academic ability to be accepted and many more apply than it is possible to accept. Oxbridge interviews are about a lot more than academic ability; they are to do with personality and the ability to fit in with college life. I am not surprised that if this girl has the arrogance to complain to national newspapers about a common case of interview failure, that she was deemed unsuitable by her interviewers.
Matthew Hood, Cambridge University, UK


In the end, the real decision is made by the three interviewers who select the "best" candidates based on their own perception of what a good student should be

Bertillon, Scotland
All the better for the US. I hope she stays and has a great career.
Ivan Medlicott, USA

As a state school student at Magdalen, I sympathise with Laura for not getting in. However, I got only three A's at GCSE and it is important to remember that at interview your grades are only part of how you are assessed. It is not a fair system, of course, but neither are exams a fair measure of intelligence. Oxford is not free of prejudice but the Chancellor's comments make it clear that neither is he. Oxford is getting better with its access schemes and hopefully, more state pupils will come here in the future and enjoy what it has to offer.
Graham White, UK

Gordon Brown knows how to lose my respect pretty quickly! I was an undergraduate at Oxford and am now a Masters student at Harvard. Lucky Laura. Harvard is a great place, but then so is Oxford. However, Oxford, unlike Harvard, interviewed Laura. If they thought she wouldn't fit in at Magdalen then I think we should trust their decision
Mark Bearn, UK


However, Oxford, unlike Harvard, interviewed Laura. If they thought she wouldn't fit in at Magdalen then I think we should trust their decision

Mark Bearn, UK
From the comments, it appears that everyone has vague ideas on the admission requirements for Oxford. To me, what defines a good student is still a mystery. In the end, the real decision is made by the three interviewers who select the "best" candidates based on their own perception of what a good student should be.
Bertillon, Scotland

I would rather see greater investment in other universities, thereby allowing them to compete, rather than the current method whereby Oxbridge receives vastly higher subsidies. Also, if anyone watched a recent TV documentary, they would realise the government's current liking for Oxbridge has been to the expense of many other institutions.
Rod, UK

The government seems to have a one-track mind with regard to universities. They seem to think that they are simply there for the education of those proceeding from A-levels, GNVQ's, S-Levels and the like. If you ask any student regarding what they are looking forward to at university, and they say the social life, the opportunities outside their course and many will say intellectual stimulation as well. However, the interview system at Oxbridge recognises this, and that university life is rich and diverse. In order to bring this to excellence as well as much else, they need people with a broad view on life.
Ben Sewell, UK


Getting 10 grade A* GCSEs really is no guide to university potential, whether you're from a state school or otherwise

Mike Sawicki, UK
Getting 10 grade A* GCSEs really is no guide to university potential, whether you're from a state school or otherwise, and by no means does it entitle anyone to a place at Oxford or indeed anywhere. Secondly, just because Harvard accepted her does not in any way vindicate her ability; a friend of mine (who also got 10 A* GCSE grades) was turned down by "lesser institutions" such as Bristol before being accepeted at Cambridge; he also happens to be of Indian descent, so does this imply discrimination by Bristol et al? So she got in to Harvard: well done, but blew the Oxford interviews: bad luck. Blame yourself before you blame the system.
Mike Sawicki, UK

Laura should stop complaining. Have she, the media, and the government forgotten that almost everyone who applies to Oxbridge has 10 A*s and three As? Admittance is based on more than just that: it's about how suited you'll be to the nature of the course, and whether you can convince the interviewer that you really want to study that particular course at that particular college. Perhaps Laura didn't manage to do that. She should be content with Harvard, and not provoke the sort of media vedetta against Oxford that we've seen over the last few days.
Stephen Parkinson, Tyne and Wear, UK

As a fairly recent Oxford graduate I would say there is little doubt that such prejudice exists in some areas. However it is a disservice to those who are trying to improve thngs to imply that there is some kind of university-wide conspiracy. ... Here in the USA, the quality of education depends entirely on how much MONEY you or your parents are able to invest in it. Scholarships like Laura's are vanishingly rare. The vast majority of people are excluded from the best universities because they cannot afford them. Whilst the system in UK could be better, at least everyone has a chance.
D Greig, Brit teaching in US university


What is truly shocking is the inability of Britain to design an education system where people from ordinary comprehensives have access to the best opportunities.

Ben Jones, US
I remember arriving at Cambridge from a small private school only to discover that those "state" applicants all hailed from such underprivileged inner city sink schools as Royal Tunbridge Wells Girls Grammar. What is truly shocking is not the failure of one individual in the Oxbridge system, but the complete inability of Britain to design an education system where people from ordinary comprehensives (the overwhelming majority) have access to the best opportunities. We have to spend more money on these schools and teachers, and perhaps indulge the grand old universities a little less.
Ben Jones, UK living in US

It is the case that virtually all applicants to Oxbridge achieved the top grades at GCSE and are expected to get 3 grade As at A-Level so, unfortunately, someone has to miss out. To say that Oxford, and for that matter Cambridge, are biased against state school students is ridiculous. Two weeks ago the two universities hired out Old Trafford stadium for a conference to attract more students from traditionally under represented backgrounds. During the Easter break well over 1000 Oxbridge students visited state schools around the country to encourage students to apply. Oxbridge is working hard to encourage more state students to apply and comments of the sort that Mr Brown has made will only act to harm that process.
Alex Whittaker, England

I'm a state school pupil at Magdalen College. I got 11 A*'s and was predicted 3A's, but then so were all the other applicants. For every place there at least 4 applicants, and good people do get turned down, but I feel sure Laura didn't get turned down because of her state school background. She probably got turned down because she wasn't the best applicant for a very limited number of places. It's easy to take a pop at Oxford, but Laura seems to be doing OK, it's hardly ruined her life.
Ruairi McAleese, UK


It's not necessarily Oxbridge that is outdated, merely some of the more entrenched leaders

Ben, UK
This year I applied for a place at Cambridge. The first college I applied to was rude, conceited and deeply unfriendly. Arriving on interview day, I found I was one of only two state school students there, and was shunned by fellow candidates. I was turned down by this college, but was then invited by a different college to apply to them. They were polite, friendly and treated me as a human being. In the end, I chose to go somewhere else, but I think it pays to remember that it's not necessarily Oxbridge that is outdated, merely some of the more entrenched leaders.
Ben, UK

As an undergraduate at Hull University, I believe that it is not relevant which 'class' of school a prospective student attended. Many students here come from comprehensive backgrounds and this is no reflection on how hard a student will work once on their chosen degree programme. While prestigious universities are an asset to the country, accepting a student from a comprehensive school as opposed to a grammar school is no way of determining how able a student is.
Richard Price, United Kingdom

The candidate should have been able to choose 3 colleges (in order of preference) at Oxford - if she didn't do well at one interview, they might have passed her on to the college she listed as 2nd choice. If she didn't get this option, presumably the interview went very badly and the expectation was that she wouldn't have spoken much in the other interviews either - if not, did she interview with the other colleges too? It seems likely that if all 3 colleges turned her down then they had an academic reason for it. If she only chose 1 college then perhaps she was over-confident and should have chosen 3.
Richard Carr, England

Many, many people achieve excellent academic results at school. From my experience of Oxbridge interviews, they attempt to select those people who may also add to the life of the potential student's college and university. To do otherwise would be to accept only walking calculators and talking analysis programs.
Stuart Bell, Cambridge, UK


Politicians are clearly latching onto an emotive issue with no first hand knowledge, in order to score easy points

Richard, UK
What does Gordon Brown actually know about this specific case? Has he met the girl in question? Has he interviewed the other applicants? I doubt it. This reminds me of the Elian Gonzales case. Politicians are clearly latching onto an emotive issue case about which they have no first hand knowledge, in order to score easy points.
Richard, UK

I'm afraid that every candidate with a batch full of 'A's can't expect to get into a medicine cause at Oxbridge. If she didn't say much at interview, and didn¿t present herself well then it's not surprising that the other candidates who were able to demonstrate their abilities got the places.
Tom Page, UK

Comments on this page seem to have deteriorated into a slanging match with loyal Oxford students rightfully defending their university. However having done my undergraduate degree in Oxford and a masters in Harvard, I would have to say that its hands down Harvard!!! More resources, a broader curriculum, more open mind-set in general. The government and British universities in general really need to get their act together.
Rahul, California, USA

As someone who has been rejected by Oxford once and accepted the following year, I have reasonably good experience of the Oxford interview system. I have consistently maintained that the system is hugely inefficient when it comes to choosing the best candidates. Two twenty minute interviews (and maybe a short written test) count for very little in determining the quality of a candidate. Candidates' performances in interviews will vary from day to day. Yet, whatever Oxford may say, this is the principal deciding factor in the selection process. Having said all that, I think it is very unlikely that Oxford turned down a candidate solely because they came from a state school. However ineffective their system, their ultimate aim is to select the best candidates ...
Alex, UK

As a current Magdalen graduate student, (undergraduate 93-96), I find the response to this girl's unsuccessful application to Magdalen quite absurd. For one thing, everybody knows the 10 stars at GCSEs means little intellectually and for another, I myself am not surprised Harvard took her as I decided not to apply there for my doctorate (further to my studying in New York after Oxford) because the requirements for the degree did not suggest that the students would be up to much. What we have here is a government who has faith in the GCSE 'quiz' system decrying Oxford's tireless efforts to keep the standards as high as they should be in this country. People who perform well at GCSE can congratulate themselves heartily, but should they not let it build confidence, since the qualification is all but meaningless, especially for those who enter the academic arena.
Nicholas Brown, Magdalen College, UK


From what I know Harvard is much more a bastion of snobbery

FA, UK
It is extremely disappointing when someone who has been rejected from Oxford starts complaining in the national press. People should not draw general conclusions from a few specific and isolated cases. I myself and many of my friends at Oxford come from the most deprived parts of the country, and I am dismayed when people are misled about Oxford (and Cambridge) by the tabloid press. When I applied to Oxford, Bristol University (ie not even Cambridge) had the highest proportion of privately educated students. Secondly, from what I know Harvard is much more a bastion of snobbery, because bar the odd scholarship most Harvard students have to pay tens of thousands of pounds for their education.
FA, UK

Regardless of the validity of the case for denying Laura a place it is clear that this institution and others like it have considerable work to do to clean up the current public perception. It seems the selection process is viewed very much as that for admission to the Freemasons and it will help to have friends in high places. As for Laura, congratulations in gaining a scholarship to probably the most prestigious institute of them all.
Neil, Northern Ireland

Warwick is now officially the number 2 university in the UK behind Cambridge, Oxford is slipping because it's stuck in its old ways.
N. Boy, UK

I recently had an interview with Cambridge University and if Oxford go about their interviews the same way, then I believe their decision is completely justified. Due to self-selection, everyone who applies to Oxbridge and receives an interview is a top-class student. I personally know several friends who many believed had what it took to get into Oxford; yet they didn't. It's supposed to be competitive. Not everyone can get in. It may have escaped people's notice that there are over 40 applicants per place in Harvard; undoubtedly some of those who are rejected come to Oxbridge. Yet do you hear a similar outcry from America? No. As for the implication that this is just class-snobbery, I would suggest that those who pose such accusations should spend some time talking to students at Oxbridge, who will no doubt disabuse them of this.
Adrian Hon, UK

If Gordon Brown really cares about "removing old barriers" and focusing on students' potential rather than their backgrounds, perhaps he and his government should take steps to provde proper student grants which will encourage applicants of quality (and not just those who can afford it) to pursue further education. British universities are chronically underfunded. Which British university could offer a scholarship worth more than a fraction of the £65,000 which is being provided by Harvard in this case?
Jeremy Wilding, UK

I think that the chancellor has no place in interfering with a particular candidate's case - this is gutter politics from a man who has no knowledge of Oxford and was not clever enough to study there. Oxbridge is open to all candidates, but there is more work to be done. The chancellor has probably discouraged many students from applying to Oxbridge from disadvantaged backrounds.
Rameen, Cambridge University, UK

I had A stars and As for my GCSEs and went to a good arts school in America instead of A-levels. I did well on an interview for Cambridge but I didn't get in. I probably just wasn't good enough, but I had the feeling that because I was Welsh, I might as well have been coming from Mars.
Steffan, UK

Prince Charles managed 2 E's in his A-Levels and yet "won" a place at Trinity College, Cambridge. That makes a mockery of the establishment argument that positive discrimination would lead to lowered standards. I graduated from Cambridge in 1996, and found that it's still full of rich public schoolgirls and boys who have more interest in the boat race than academic excellence.
Russell, UK

Politicians, like other commentators, should speak based on experience. ... On the other hand, university admissions decisions should relate to abilities in tasks most closely associated to those found in university study. Ability to discuss issues thoughtfully is important to academic success but I doubt that the interview technique employed by Oxford is necessarily the best way to determine this, especially for a young student who may be intimidated by the environment.
Gordon Pollock, MA, PhD, Canada

I am a state-educated PhD (D Phil) student at Oxford University. In Oxford's defence I would say that admission procedures are nw much fairer than they used to be, and they are trying to do better each year, even if the occasional shy person still slips through. Personally, I have found the large debts I have had to incur the biggest barrier to acquiring the an elite education. If the chancellor really wants to open up an elite education to everyone then he should make sure that anyone offered a place at Oxford (or any other university) can afford to take up their place. I for one have struggled, and am unlikely to be able to pursue an academic career due to the debts I have accumulated.
Matt Prescott, UK

Having fortunately gained a place to study history at Oxford next year, I know how hard it is to get into the university. Howeverver, it is not based on whether you are from a state or private school, but the level of the other candidates. If there are 5 places in the college, and 5 extremely good candidates, it's simply a lottery, it's not rigged against state pupils.
Paul Lowrie, UK

I think that the only issue this raises is the incredibly poor standard of even the best American universities. Oxford graduates are recognised the world over as being the best, and the continuing success is largely due to the selection process which is not impressed by how many GCSEs you can pass, but the candidates' potential for learning, leading and living life to the full
Tim Wakefield, (St Hugh's 1995), Bermuda

What is the problem? Does the world begin and end with Oxbridge? Laura is going to be a much better person for studying at Harvard which in turn is not the only great university in the USA. Don't overlook the fact that US schools love to enrich themselves with foreign students. Harvard like Oxford is an elitist establishment!
Peter Glazier, Brazil

As a state school student at Cambridge at the moment I feel I have to write and say that it may well be the best thing for her that she got turned down. Getting in to Oxbridge is one thing, but the three years I have spent here have been perhaps the most difficult of my life. The culture and atmosphere is "old boy" as Gordon Brown said. You survive here on who you know and having ten A* GCSEs counts for nothing.
Katie Horne, Cambridgeshire

Given the appalling state of American universities, I think Miss Spence's scholarship says more about Harvard's standards than it does about Oxford.
David Szondy, USA

The Oxford interview system is a method of finding the ablest people, not the most academically gifted. If there were a straight academic competition then where would the society within the college be, with few sportswomen and actors, just the academic equivalent of sprinters?
Paul Brennan, UK

What is Oxford to do in order to be seen as accessible to state school pupils? Let all females who apply from northern Comprehensives in? This would sacrifice the university's quality and integrity, on which its reputation is based. The admissions system is not unfairly weighted against state school students - I should know, because I went to a Comprehensive and still got in. It is designed to see who will get the most out of the unique system of teaching.
David Murray, UK


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