State-school admissions parity would need radical measures at Cambridge

Anonymisation or even quotas could level the playing field, but fragmentation of college processes threatens a reversal in decades of gains, says Alan Baker

June 25, 2024
Alan Baker with Emmanuel College praelector and head porter in 1983
Source: Alan Baker
Alan Baker (left) with Emmanuel College's praelector and head porter in 1983

It is no secret that admission to the University of Cambridge used to be a daunting challenge for the unprivileged.

As a non-fee-paying day-boy at an independent Methodist school in the 1950s, I was “prepped” for a process that involved an overnight stay in a college to sit the Cambridge Colleges Exam (CCE) and be interviewed. Still, the college’s architectural grandeur was stunningly “other” for a working-class lad from a 19th-century terraced house, and I was unnerved by the eminent glaciologist who insisted on wandering around his overpoweringly book-lined study while interviewing me, sometimes disappearing from my line of sight.

At least he didn’t ask me about my father’s occupation, as one of my three interviewers at an Oxford college did. When I answered that he was an engine fitter, the interviewer – a priest – said, “Oh, you mean he owns a garage?” I was so appalled by this presumptuous, irrelevant line of questioning that I determined there and then that Oxford was not for me.

The priest evidently took the same view, while the glaciologist also rejected my application. Neither identified me as a future Royal Geographical Society gold medallist, Fellow of the British Academy, Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques and vice-master of an Oxbridge college. The prestige of my State Scholarship from the Ministry of Education was trumped, it seemed, by my origins.

These experiences shaped my approach to admissions at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, for which I had overall responsibility between 1976 and 1986. A policy of widening access had already been implemented by my predecessor but one, David Newsome. Significantly, he began making offers to home applicants conditional on their achieving specified grades in public examinations (principally A-Levels), recognising that many candidates from state-maintained schools were not as well-placed to prepare for the CCE as those from independent schools, with better teacher-pupil ratios and greater familiarity with Oxbridge’s procedures and cultures.

I expanded that policy and, by 1984, almost two-thirds of home students were admitted to Emmanuel via A-level grades. That was the year that we became the first college to announce our withdrawal from the CCE and rely, as all other UK universities but Oxford did, on public examinations, school reports and interviews. The other Cambridge Colleges quickly followed suit; 1985 was the last year the CCE was held.

This move was motivated not by prejudice against candidates from independent schools but by a determination to widen participation that saw all Cambridge Colleges and departments seek to improve contacts with potential maintained-school applicants and their teachers, through attractive admissions brochures, alluring web sites, adventurous outreach projects and animated open days.

The results were as intended. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the proportion of undergraduate admissions to Emmanuel from UK maintained schools fluctuated between 54 and 65 per cent. But between 2013 and 2023, it was between 53 and 76 per cent. For all colleges in that latter period, it ranged between 61 and 73 per cent.

Nonetheless, neither Emmanuel nor Cambridge as a whole can declare “mission accomplished”. The recently announced Cambridge-wide maintained-sector admission figure for 2023, is slightly down on 2022, and while 72.6 per cent is still historically high, it is far below the 90 per cent of A-level-sitting UK students who attend maintained schools.

Bringing those figures into significantly closer alignment will not be easy. More needs to be known about the relative effectiveness of the many access-widening measures currently employed, and there is also an onus on schools to encourage more of their pupils to “give Cambridge a go”. For the 2022 admissions cycle, only 66.8 per cent of Emmanuel applicants came from maintained schools, rising to 72.2 per cent for the university as a whole; colleges can only admit students who apply.

But neither this nor further modest adjustments to colleges’ admissions procedures will be enough. To approach 90 per cent maintained-sector admissions, we would need to adopt fundamental changes, such as not requiring applicants to provide the names of their schools and for headteachers’ reports to be anonymous until the selection process has been completed. Perhaps we would even need affirmative action, with the incremental introduction of quotas for maintained-sector applicants. But could such radical changes be experimentally adopted by one or two pioneering colleges? Probably not without legal challenge.

Meanwhile, the standardisation of Cambridge admissions has gone into reverse. A big reason is grade inflation in A levels, which has made them less useful for differentiating among applicants. This led in 2001 to the introduction of incrementally elaborated general and subject-specific tests for applicants to some Cambridge Colleges and for some subjects, taken either at local test centres or at interview.

As correctly identified by Simon Ravenscroft, undergraduate admissions tutor at Magdalene College, in his recent article for Times Higher Education, this regrettable fragmentation of policies (which can also vary year to year) risks rendering Cambridge admissions, once again, a dense jungle that applicants from independent schools are likely to be better equipped to penetrate.

Half a century of progress is under threat. Cambridge admissions tutors may no longer ask working-class applicants what their fathers do, but colleges’ admissions engines are still not well fitted for them.

Alan Baker is a fellow and former senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This article is based on a paper given at a symposium on “Overcoming class barriers in Cambridge” at Homerton College in June 2023. It is available on request from Emmanuel’s archivist (catalogue reference COL.9.3.BAKER).

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