Oxbridge’s contribution to science ‘overrated’

Proportion of Royal Society scientists associated with Oxbridge is lower than expected, researcher says

February 15, 2017
Cambridge University students on the River Cam. Punt is sinking
Source: Alamy

Oxbridge’s contribution to science is overestimated while the impact of technical-focused institutions is overlooked, suggests new analysis on where the UK’s most eminent scientists were educated.

Surveying the educational backgrounds of about 300 scientists who became fellows of the Royal Society, Francis Hooton, an ecology research intern at the University of Glasgow, found that 42 per cent attended either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate.

Only 9 per cent of those surveyed later held a professorship at either of the universities, Mr Hooton also found.

Of his sample, which focused on experimental scientists admitted to the society in the 20th century, roughly half (49 per cent) were neither undergraduates nor senior faculty at Oxbridge, Mr Hooton found.

His analysis, which took a random sample from the 3,500 or so fellows admitted to the Royal Society over this period, also found that many top scientists were educated at polytechnics, most of which were converted into full universities in 1992. Some 8 per cent of his sample were educated either at polytechnics or at technical institutes.

These include George Cooke, the agricultural fertiliser expert who went to a technical institute that is now part of Nottingham Trent University, and aviation designer George Edwards, whose studies began at a technical college in Walthamstow, later incorporated into the University of East London.

While half of the fellows analysed had some contact with Oxbridge, this proportion is arguably lower than might be expected given the two universities’ reputations and their relatively high student numbers compared with other universities in the early to mid-20th century, Mr Hooton said.

Journalists should “stop obsessing about Oxbridge”, he said.

“Oxford and Cambridge are wonderful, highly academic universities, but so are Aberdeen, Glasgow and Bangor,” he added.

His study follows a similar analysis by Mr Hooton published in the Royal Society of Biology’s house magazine The Biologist in February 2016, which found that only 54 per cent of Royal Society fellows gained a first-class degree, with 18 per cent taking third-class honours.

The latest results show the impact of technical colleges and polytechnics had also been overlooked, argued Mr Hooton.

There was a strong argument for converting universities that used to be polytechnics back into polytechnics given their good record in producing “many thousands of bright and clever engineers, physicists and chemists”, who sometimes made it into the Royal Society, he added.


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