Top UK universities remain unreachable for 70% of students

Eight top schools have as many Oxford and Cambridge admissions as the next 2894 UK schools combined, according to a new report by the Sutton Trust. The Trust suggests that little has changed regarding access to opportunity at Oxbridge since its last report in 2011. For nearly three quarters of school leavers across the UK, an education at Oxford and Cambridge remains out of reach.

The difficulty of attaining admission is particularly acute among those students studying at state-run schools. Oxford and Cambridge have the lowest acceptance of state school students of all universities in the Russell Group, with Oxford at 58% and Cambridge at 63%. By comparison, the Universities of Sheffield and Liverpool accept 88% of their students from state-run schools.

Inequality is also evident by region. Regions in the Midlands have some of the lowest university entrant rates at 0 – 15%, compared to London and other high socio-economic regions of the country. Geographic inequality is highlighted in the report as a continuing problem, with some regions under-represented not only at Oxbridge but in all universities.

Lucas Bertholdi-Saad, Oxford SU’s Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs, described the report as “another piece of evidence that Oxbridge needs to do more to widen out access,” adding that “it should not matter what school you attended or the extra support you get, it should be down to the merits of the individuals.”

The Sutton report suggests that persistent inequality of access to Oxford and Cambridge arises, in part, due to the advantages inherent in elite private education. Private schools out-compete by ensuring a high level of “personalised support” for students seeking admission to university. This can include mentoring programs, university admissions officers and general support and encouragement from teachers in one-on-one consultations. Schools like Eton and Westminster School provide support in the proof-reading of a student’s personal statement for their university applications.

By contrast, those from low-socio economic schools often lack personalised support and ‘coaching’ in the admissions process. Lower socio-economic students are more prone to making spelling and grammar errors on their personal statements, in part, because they lack the mentorship and encouragement provided by elite private educators.

The report recommends several reforms to both the admissions and recruitment processes at Oxford and Cambridge. These include a greater emphasis on the contextual background of a student, including whether or not they come from a low-socio-economic group, and a greater focus on regions with low university attendance. The report also recommends that state schools offer advice to students regarding admission to university prior to A-Levels and that students receive personalized careers services where possible.