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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 November 2005, 11:32 GMT
A class above?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Stephen Fry
Fry was at Queens' College, Cambridge
Entertainer Stephen Fry has criticised the "ridiculous sense of elitism" at his alma mater, Cambridge University. Is he right?

With alumni including William Wordsworth, Charles Darwin, Sylvia Plath, and Stephen Hawking, Cambridge has earned its reputation as one of the best universities in the world.

But author and Cambridge graduate, Stephen Fry, has attacked its "ridiculous sense of elitism" and says it is full of "idiots who think they are in Brideshead Revisited".

"The best thing about having gone to Cambridge University was never having to deal with not going there," he said after receiving a honorary degree at the city's other higher education institution, Anglia Ruskin University, formerly Anglia Polytechnic.

'Stupid'

"That's the only advantage. Some of the most ineffably stupid people I've ever met went to Cambridge University, it's no guarantee of anything, it's pretty much a lottery."

Does Fry have a point? For centuries, the university's quadrangles and spires have not only been symbols of academic excellence, but social snobbery.

Julia Simms, a recent graduate, says Cambridge will always attract people with an elitist attitude, but they are in the minority.

"I came from a state school and was concerned about what Cambridge would be like," she says.

Cambridge University students after May Ball
Partying Cambridge University style
"But there is a real mix of people. You do get students who have had all the advantages in life and been to the best private schools, but you also get people like me.

"Some do treat it like a private members' club, but they would have that attitude wherever they went. They think they are part of an elite long before they come to Cambridge."

But the old perceptions have proved hard to shake off. The "social mix" of people at Oxbridge is still cited as a major concern among state school pupils thinking of applying, according to a recent study commissioned by both Cambridge and Oxford University.

Director of Admissions at Cambridge, Geoff Parks, says there is still a perception that the university is socially elitist, but figures indicate otherwise.

Cambridge University
Not your average university campus
"Anyone with the ability and motivation can thrive here," he says.

According to admission's figures, 57% of students at Cambridge University are from state schools and 43% from independent schools, excluding overseas students.

"We run many different outreach projects to demystify the workings of Cambridge. Some have been working for years and are not just post Laura Spence."

Miss Spence hit the headlines in 2000 after Chancellor Gordon Brown described her rejection from Oxford University to study medicine as "an absolute scandal".

'Attitude'

A state school student with top exam marks, her rejection prompted a national debate about the admissions procedures at all the country's top universities.

But should getting into Cambridge really matter so much? As Fry says: "Anyone who spends three years and gets a degree is worthy of the same sense of self respect and I'm sure their parents are just as proud."

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