Laura Spence speaks out

August 6, 2004

Laura Spence, the state-school pupil whose rejection by Oxford University sparked a furious row over elitism, has broken her silence after four years at Harvard University with an appeal to British sixthformers to follow her lead in studying on the other side of the Atlantic.

In an exclusive interview with The Times Higher, Ms Spence revealed that she has come back to Britain to study medicine. She wanted to study the subject at Oxford but did not win a place in 2000 despite predictions of straight A grades at A level - which she received.

Her rejection sparked a political storm as Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, accused Oxford admissions tutors of elitism and described Magdalen College's decision as an "absolute scandal".

It later emerged that two of the five successful candidates were from comprehensive schools.

Four years on, Ms Spence has graduated from Harvard, where she studied biochemistry with the help of a $65,000 (£35,750) scholarship.

Ms Spence told The Times Higher that, thanks to her time at the Ivy League institution, she was "substantially more well rounded, confident and better prepared to make contributions to medicine than I was four years ago".

She urged British sixthformers to consider applying to study in the US and to "not be deterred by what may seem like barriers at first - such as cost".

Ms Spence said: "While, at first glance, tuition fees may seem astronomically prohibitive ($37,000 a year at Harvard), many forms of financial aid are available. At Harvard, financial aid is needs-based, so if the admissions office wants to offer you a place, the financial aid office makes sure you have sufficient support through grants, loans and part-time jobs."

She thought that many sixthformers were unaware of the costs of studying in the US and what kind of financial help is available. "I certainly had no idea until, under the suggestion of my headmaster, I started searching for the information," she said.

She said that the introduction of tuition fees and bursaries in the UK from 2006 could lead to "a US education costing the same or less than a British one".

"I hope that as information about US university options becomes more widespread, sixthformers will include these options in making their higher education choices," she said.

Ms Spence's comments came as evidence emerged that more UK sixthformers than ever are seeking information about how to apply for a university place in the US.

The Fulbright Commission, which offers advice and scholarships for UK students interested in studying in the US, said that the number of inquiries had risen by 400 per cent since 2002 and that it had handled 20,000 requests for information in June alone.

Despite this initial interest from British students, there is little evidence of a significant rise in the number of applications to US institutions. Applications from the UK to most Ivy League institutions have dipped since the US tightened its visa regime in late 2001. There are now just over 8,000 UK students studying in the US.

A report published this week by the UK's higher education funding councils and the Government reveals that UK students who seek a year abroad as part of their degree prefer to be taught in English-speaking countries.

Of British students who spent time studying abroad in 2002-03, 52 per cent travelled to North America, while only 18 per cent opted to study in another European Union country.

Ms Spence hit the headlines in 2000 when Magdalen did not offer her a place. Some people, including Mr Brown, cited her rejection as evidence that state-school pupils were disadvantaged by the Oxbridge interview system.

Oxford said that Ms Spence had been judged on her performance in three days of tests and interviews rather than on her social background.

Ms Spence refused to be drawn on where she would now study as a postgraduate.


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