Can a Cambridge degree function as a glittering ticket out of poverty, and will the programme benefit those who need it the most?

Oxbridge and the social mobility myth

Emily Pritchard

Emily Pritchard on Cambridge University's new plans to improve access to what is still one of the most socially unequal institutions in the world

10 October 2018 09:59

I have always loved the word ‘meritocracy’. Were I a politician, I would worm it into every speech, partly because – pleasingly Classical as it is – it is a lovely word; but also, to restate a cornerstone of our socially lubricated society. For many years, I was a firm believer in the existence of such a society. It was exemplified by those around me: my own dad, successful despite his teenage, single-parent family; my best friend’s mum, brought up on a council estate in Glasgow, and now almost comically middle class. Anyone can be anyone! This is England! But as the years went by, the scales fell away, and the social ladder became greasy, slippery, with rungs broken or missing. These examples became exceptions to a clear rule.

Last week, Cambridge announced plans to roll out a new transition year for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds; one which, if introduced as planned, aims to redress the balance in one of the most exclusive universities in the world. But can a Cambridge degree function as a glittering ticket out of poverty, and will the programme benefit those who need it the most?

In his annual start-of-term address in Senate House, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, Sir Professor Stephen Toope, called for time to dispel the stereotype of the elite institution as ‘a bastion of privilege’. The university’s proposed solution will see the introduction of a foundation year, based at one of Cambridge colleges, affording ‘a leg up’, says Toope, to a select group of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. ‘People who really have the talent, but just might not have had the same advantages as some others.’ In other words, inherently brilliant pupils who just don’t get the grades; perhaps because of time out of school, due to the need to work or care for a relative; or a difficult classroom environment; or a disruptive home life. The course, which would be funded by philanthropists working with the university, is set to act as a preparatory programme for red bricks, with Toope explaining ‘we’ll obviously have to work with people to ensure that they’re applying not only to Cambridge but elsewhere. For those who are not quite able to make the grade to get into Cambridge they’ll be able to go to some other very good place.’

Can a Cambridge degree function as a glittering ticket out of poverty, and will the programme benefit those who need it the most?

Of course, for the few dozen teenagers who take part in the programme, it will – in many ways – be life-changing. A similarly fully-funded scheme is already in place at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. It rolled out in 2016 and has seen two cohorts graduate. Whilst the admissions tutors at the college are clear that completing the foundation year does not guarantee entry to Oxford afterwards, it does seem to aid it. In the first cohort, 7 of 10 students passed the necessary admissions process to enrol on an Oxford degree, and the number rose slightly with the second batch, to 9 of 11. ‘It was an amazing year,’ says Zahra, now in her second year at Oxford, studying law. A student who took part in the course last year described it as ‘honestly life-changing. I’ve grown in academic and personal confidence’.

These state-school kids are held up as the ultimate evidence of our extolled meritocracy, but the facts are stark. The Times league table – which ranks institutions according to percentages of state (non-grammar) school pupils, BAME, working class or disabled pupils, and pupils from deprived areas – rates Oxford as the worst university in the UK for social inclusion. A close second is St Andrews, with Cambridge limping in at third. When you take grammar schools out of the equation, Oxford’s ‘state-school’ percentage falls from 58.2 per cent to 39.4 per cent.

It’s interesting, looking at the breakdown by subject, to see that the most employable subjects are the ones in which state school pupils dominate; the esoteric subjects – Theology, Classics, PPL (Philosophy, Politics and Linguistics) – admitted over half of their students from independent schools.

Toope’s programme is an excellent idea and I applaud it, but there simply aren’t enough places on the scheme to cater for everyone who deserves, given a different life chance, to get in. We need to address why these kids aren’t getting the grades in the first place.

When you take grammar schools out of the equation, Oxford’s admission ‘state-school’ students percentage falls from 58.2 per cent to 39.4 per cent.

What we’re seeing in these admission statistics is only part of the picture. The state education system in itself is becoming a stratified entity. The schools are not failing our disadvantaged kids disproportionately in relation to the better off ones; the middle classes are cheating them. When will the system start accounting for the hundreds of hours of extra education received by those who can afford to pay for it?

‘The middle classes are investing more and more resources into their young childrens’ futures, and leaving the rest of the population behind, so we’re seeing this boom in private tutoring outside schools,’ says Dr Lee Elliot Major, author of Social Mobility And Its Enemies, and Chief Executive of The Sutton Trust, the UK’s leading foundation for improving social mobility though education. I worked as a private tutor briefly after graduating. Parents will pay through the nose to get their kids into the right high school, the right sixth form, into Oxbridge. It was disgustingly well paid; in ninety minutes, I earned what I do per day working full-time as a magazine journalist. There’s no mandate to claim private tuition on UCAS forms.

And will just a year on the foundation programme be enough to make up for 18 of being perpetually two steps behind? ‘I suspect that the dropout rate from these programmes will be high, across the four years of the degree,’ said Sian Griffiths, The Sunday Times’ Education Editor. What’s clear is that these students would benefit from support, not just in their foundation year, but over the duration of their time at Oxbridge, to shift the scales back in favour of the few kids at these institutions who’ve never benefited from extra help.

The schemes, as they are, are still fledglings, and, of course, more will be done to develop these foundation courses – of 24 Russell Group universities, 16 have similar programmes. But the problem is too big to be fixed by offering a golden ticket to a select few with the promise of a brighter future. A promise that may, despite the rhetoric of the ‘passport’ offered by an Oxbridge degree, ring false. The imbalance in our education system is one that will persist beyond the school corridors, even beyond the dreaming spires and the ancient colleges. For the many graduate opportunities created through pure graft – and, yes, there are many – there are leg-ups (the nepotistic type), good words put in, and generous parents with a spare flat in Fulham, rent-free.

We live in one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, ranking in the bottom seven of OECD countries in the LIS data set. For the kids who take part in the scheme, we can only hope that it does provide a doorway to a world of opportunity. But, as education increasingly becomes a way to stratify echelons of society, with tuition fees rising, private tuition booming and the Tory vision of a grammar school system refusing to die, they will be simply too few.

Can a Cambridge degree function as a glittering ticket out of poverty, and will the programme benefit those who need it the most?