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Wednesday, June 30, 1999 Published at 14:22 GMT 15:22 UK


Perception and reality



Sir David Harrison is Master of Selwyn College and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge - and head of a university task force seeking to attract a wider range of students to Cambridge. He writes in a personal capacity.

The University of Cambridge wants to attract the brightest young men and women into its membership, and social class, gender and ethnic background have no place in selection for admission.

Why is it then that some perceptions can be so different and why is it that 'access' to Cambridge (and Oxford) is so often a matter of debate and controversy among young people, their parents and their advisers at school, the media and the government?

It is first worth noting that some perceptions go back a long way. Fifty years ago one UK student in four was at Oxbridge, now it is one in 50, following the great expansion in higher education. There is now much more on offer in universities than there once was.

A recent independent study by the National Foundation for Educational Research into the factors that influence young people in state schools in their decision whether or not to apply to Oxbridge has shown us the need to provide reassurance to would-be state school applicants, and particularly to women.

Social mix

I make it a practice to ask new students to my college within a week or two of their arrival whether they had found any surprises in settling in. The most common response is: "There are people here like me."

They mean this socially as well as academically and I have no doubt that if that message could be passed back to younger pupils in their schools (and their teachers), some of the fears associated with application to Cambridge would go away.

Candidates from schools unfamiliar with Cambridge express their concerns about interviews and their part in the selection process. We have been trying to meet these concerns by issuing a formal code for interviewers and an informal booklet for candidates based on students' experiences of interviews.

The crucial aspect of interviewing for us is that it engages college tutors directly in the selection of the students they will teach.

Less expensive

When some candidates consider Cambridge, there can be a perception that it will be more expensive than elsewhere, a view on occasion fuelled by high society images in soap operas depicting university life.

The facts are the opposite. Cambridge is less expensive than many universities, particularly with regard to the costs of accommodation. We do urge prospective candidates to seek out the true situation.

Access is often popularly defined in terms of the simple ratio of state to independent school acceptances, which for 1998 entry to Cambridge was 1:1. The corresponding ratio for applications was 1.33:1 - a situation shared with Oxford and a number of other universities, such as Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh and the London School of Economics to name but a few.

Access to Oxbridge can be more precisely defined in terms of the schools (state or independent) with a significant number of pupils who achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A or A*.

Trying harder

The study of access is also being attempted by the University Funding Councils by matching the applicants to individual universities with the affluence or otherwise of their homes as indicated by their postcodes.

However access is measured, the bottom line for Cambridge is that too few bright young people in state schools apply for admission.

The University recognises that, given a particular range of subjects and syllabuses, there are many reasons why a potential student may choose to go elsewhere. We seek to secure that the choice is made on the basis of careful judgement and not on prejudice and false assumptions.

To that end, the university and the colleges are redoubling their efforts to improve their literature, their admissions procedures and open days, and in many other ways including, above all, engaging the support of our present students - our best ambassadors.


This is our space for those involved in education to reflect on how it is going from their corner of the world.

The views expressed here are personal.



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