She was one pupil in 450

March 13, 1998

One in 14 independent school pupils makes it to Oxbridge. One in 450 comprehensive pupils manages to do the same. One of these few became a Labour MP. And she is appalled that most of the obstacles she overcame to get there remain. Maria Eagle tells her story

In the late autumn of 1979, a sixthformer at Formby High, a Liverpool comprehensive school, I travelled by train to Oxford to attend an interview at the university. I had applied for an undergraduate place to study politics, philosophy and economics. It was not a particularly open or welcoming experience.

I had no advice on interview technique other than: "don't say anything controversial" - advice which I thankfully ignored. I was interviewed by nine crusty old dons, most of whom it seemed had hardly ever met a young woman before, let alone interviewed one. (It was only the second year Pembroke College had admitted women undergraduates and, at the time of my interview, the first year's intake had not yet started their degrees).

It would have been easy to have felt intimidated, but I saw the interview as an opportunity to ruffle some complacent, conservative feathers. Luckily the crusty old dons seemed to appreciate my outspokenness, but it was luck rather than knowledge that guided my approach. I had never even been to Oxford before. My train was late and I had to ask a policeman the quickest way when I was dashing from the station to the college.

What a different experience from that of the son of an old boy from an independent school. His father would have taken him to his chosen college to meet the dons in the months before application. He would have been much better placed to know exactly how to deal with the university's antiquated admissions procedures - and he would have been interviewed by people whom he had met socially and who knew his father.

At least students applying now to Oxford from state schools no longer have to sit an additional entrance examination which is exclusive to the university. From my comprehensive I had to tackle this prospect with one extra hour of lessons a week and do the rest of the studying myself. By contrast, independent schools and well connected grammar schools have well oiled machines of cramming and extra lessons, visits and contacts for pupils who want to apply to Oxbridge.

In my case, I soon discovered that the university's social exclusivity did not end with admission. At my matriculation dinner, apart from having to wear an academic gown, I was sat next to an old Harrovian, with whom I felt I had nothing but humanity in common, and opposite two senior dons who were supposed to entertain us students. They resorted almost immediately to conversing with each other in Latin. I left the dinner wondering what on earth I had let myself in for; the academic dress, the funny little language - battels, collections, scouts etc - perfectly accessible, of course, to those such as my old Harrovian companion who had known of them all their lives. (And who had been expecting to be admitted to Oxford for almost as long.) No wonder so many people flee Oxford and Cambridge even after admission.

Now I am an MP, one of the 180 new Labour MPs who won our seats last May. The government has made education its top priority. It has identified the need for the country to wrench itself away from its old class-ridden system of higher education and to offer access for all to lifelong learning as a key part of its programme for modernising Britain. This is a laudable aim. One of the best ways out of social exclusion and a disadvantaged start in life into employability and a chance to sample wider opportunities is through education and training. The evidence is, however, that the higher education system we have simply reinforces the disadvantages or advantages that come as an accident of birth instead of providing flexibility of movement for those at the bottom of society.

At the apogee of our socially divisive, money driven and class-ridden higher education system, acting as a deadweight to prevent change, lies Oxbridge, as it always has.

The government intends to increase the number of students in higher and further education by half a million by 2002. If it is to do so equitably it is imperative that everyone has equal access to our universities. This means tackling the issue of social access to education at its base - making sure that all children have the same opportunity to develop their full potential regardless of social class and parental income. It also means that our elite universities must change their admissions policies to eradicate the longstanding bias to selecting upper and middle class young people as students.

What do our young people find when they start to consider their options? What do the talented, ambitious and able pupils find? They find themselves judged by the schools they have attended, by the families they come from, by the areas in which they live and by the money their parents have spent to get them through the school system to age 18. They find themselves channelled into universities and colleges based upon their social class and contacts, not upon their talent, abilities and potential.

If they are from the independent sector or a well-connected grammar school, they have a good chance of studying at Oxbridge and from there, the City, the professions, the elite. Even those who choose other careers always have the kudos, the prestige, the old boys' network of Oxbridge. If they are from a state comprehensive, particularly on an inner-city estate, they do not, on the whole, fight their way into the elite institutions of Oxbridge - they go elsewhere. While I do not wish to argue that a good education is unavailable elsewhere, the fact is that they are judged as having achieved less than those who do go to Oxbridge. This is not just prejudice on my part. The figures bear it out. For the 1996 entry year at Oxford, 47 per cent of accepted applicants were from independent schools and only 44 per cent from maintained schools. This figure covers further discrimination, however, for "maintained" includes the grammar schools, some of which have a well-oiled Oxbridge conveyor belt for their pupils. At least one of them sends 30 students to Oxbridge a year. In fact, if one strips out the grammar school element of the "maintained" figures, pupils from comprehensive schools make up less than 20 per cent of the Oxbridge intake.

Is this because only those pupils at independent schools and a few grammar schools have the requisite talent? Only a social snob or a follower of eugenics would credit such an explanation. In fact two-thirds of pupils with top grades at A level are state educated. Why then do Oxford and Cambridge attract only a minority of applicants from the state sector? Figures for this October show that only 4,249 applicants to Oxford out of a total of 9,350 come from the state sector. An analysis by the Sutton Trust, which invests in initiatives to support able young people from non-privileged backgrounds, indicates that a pupil from an average comprehensive has a one in 450 chance of an Oxbridge place, compared with a one in 14 chance for a pupil at an independent school.

This has nothing to do with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge offering chances for the best wherever they come from and everything to do with promoting social exclusivity by sending out the message "you are not wanted here" to those who do not fit the age-old profile. Whether this is a deliberate message or one that goes out by default because of Oxbridge's unwillingness to change is a moot point.

Is Oxbridge to blame for its social exclusivity or does its intake merely reflect wider barriers in society? In my view it is a mixture of both.

Oxbridge entrance can be aided immeasurably by contacts between schools and colleges. Part of the aim of "Target Schools", an initiative now undertaken by the student unions at both universities and in which I participated when I was at Oxford, was to form links between comprehensive schools and Oxbridge colleges. Yet in 1996, only a third of state schools with A-level candidates supplied any applicants to Oxford and over half of those applicants failed to secure a single place. By contrast most independent schools put forward candidates and three-quarters were successful.

This is too massive an institutional problem to be solved by students. The institutions must themselves take serious steps. They show little sign of doing so. Indeed, the only flurry of handwringing on these issues we have seen lately has been more connected with the receding government threat to the additional funding Oxford and Cambridge receive to preserve their one-to-one tutorial-based teaching systems.

I have a number of suggestions which I believe the universities should consider before the government starts to consider them for them. First, they should admit students via a central admissions system instead of having myriad informal but exclusive pathways to admission via individual colleges. The systems and criteria should be open, transparent and fair. There should be an end to certain schools and certain colleges relying on nods, winks and social class plus a modicum of talent to secure admission.

They should pro-actively recruit applicants and target previous no-go areas to broaden their social base. This will mean an expanded role for central admissions staff and will involve the universities marketing themselves to potential students. They must convince non-privileged talent of the advantages of Oxbridge. They should consider constitutional reform and realise that to maintain Oxbridge as world-class centres of excellence they must have modern, flexible and responsive governing institutions. And they should be willing to modernise the ways the colleges relate to students while preserving the best of their teaching systems.

Higher education, dominated as ever by Oxbridge, is now too important to be left alone to continue to practise the social exclusivity we have witnessed for far too long. Universities, and Oxford and Cambridge in particular, should no longer be allowed to get away with complacently bleating that it is not really their fault if the vast majority of talent cannot fit into their quaint and conservative ways.

Maria Eagle is the Labour MP for Liverpool Garston.

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