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Tuesday, 23 May, 2000, 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK
Oxbridge over troubled water

By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

To the average person it is no surprise that Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates should want to set up an educational foundation linking his name to the University of Cambridge.

Along with Oxford, this ancient seat of learning remains the pinnacle of the UK's educational system in the minds of people the world over.

However, this mystique has a double edge.
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Tyne and Wear sixth former Laura Spence was turned down by Oxford, only to be snapped up by America's prestigious Harvard University.

That this straight-As comprehensive student didn't get through Oxford's arduous selection process, only confirms common suspicions of Oxbridge's social elitism.

Susan Stobbs, director of admissions at Cambridge, is well aware of these accusations.

"We are academically elite. We require the best students. We want the best students, whatever their background."

Making the grade

Ms Stobbs says some 3,000 students with three A-level A grades are turned down for entry each year.

"We do get a lot of very good applicants. We try very hard to look at individuals. We select those we think will get the most out of Cambridge and will do well here."

Ms Stobb stresses that although admission interviews can be "intimidating", Oxbridge is keen to "demystify" the procedure so everyone feels able to apply for a place.
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Both universities held a recruitment drive at Manchester United's Old Trafford ground to bump up regional admissions. According to a report in The Times, less than 3% of Oxbridge students come from the North.

"We have put a lot of effort into encouraging those from state schools to apply - not that we want to discourage more traditional applicants."

The pupils at independent schools who usually make up 45 to 50% of the Oxbridge intake may be being discouraged, if some of their headteachers are to be believed.

Earlier this year the Birmingham Post unearthed several senior staff who felt pupils from private schools were being discriminated against.

Send up

"If we're attacked equally on all sides we must be doing something right," says Ms Stobb.

Hugh Carson, headmaster at 5,000-a-term Malvern College, says many of his brightest students don't necessarily apply to Oxbridge.

They instead opt for the London universities which challenge the domination of Oxbridge at the top of the academic tables.
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Mr Carson says as A-level grades improve across the board, Oxbridge hopefuls face stiff competition and increased uncertainty.

"It's difficult to predict who will get in and who won't, despite our experience and expectations."

Chris Price, who heads a Local Government Association inquiry into changing the school year, says state school pupils are still at a greater disadvantage.

A-level results arrive only after the university application process. With only predicted grades to go on, Mr Price says many bright comprehensive students may not even aim for Oxbridge.

Grace and favour

Those at private schools are given greater encouragement about their academic potential, he says.

"This bends the system further in favour of independent schools," says Mr Price.

Professor Ron Barnet, from the University of London's Institute of Education, says academic worries are not the only reason state school pupils fail to apply for Oxbridge.
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"There is some suggestion the admission process is selecting for social characteristics rather than academic. I don't know how true that actually is."

Mr Barnet says for some with working-class backgrounds the "leap out of tradition" is too daunting to tackle.

While Imperial College London and University College London chip away at its academic monopoly, Mr Barnet says the common image of Oxbridge remains.

"They are just two institutions among more than 100 in the UK. Yet they still have a social status, which one might say is disproportionate to their real position in higher education."

Illuminating alumni

With the Oxbridge credentials of politicians, judges and media figures constantly under discussion, the "power" and "mystique" of the universities is familiar to many.

"In the minds of the person on the street, they are still seen as elite institutions."

Monica Hicks, from the Association of University Teachers, says the prestige aspects of the paired universities have become confused in the popular imagination.
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"There's a real attitudinal problem, a confusion between academic excellence and elitism. But you don't get a shift in such perceived attitudes overnight."

Ms Hicks warns dragging down Oxbridge's standards will not answer fears of social exclusivity.

"What everyone wants to avoid is levelling down. In a global market how are you going to compete with the likes of Harvard and Yale if you don't have Oxbridge?"

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See also:

13 Jul 99 | Education
Heading for Harvard
22 May 00 | Education
A-level timing is 'unfair'
15 May 00 | Education
Oxford seeks state school students
11 Jun 99 | Education
Oxford seeks fairer admissions tests
06 Jul 99 | Whiteboard
Perception and reality
08 Dec 98 | Education
Oxbridge system loses funding
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