Admissions tutors and officers nationwide are now carefully considering piles of files from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Some of those piles are noticeably smaller today than they have been in previous years. Recent changes in higher education funding continue to provoke concern over the falling numbers of applicants to our universities, but behind such politically fraught debates there is still the perennial question: how can we motivate talented pupils from state schools to apply to leading universities?
Open days are well intentioned and can be a great source of inspiration. They can also be intimidating. I remember my first visit to an Oxford college, where a wiry female don sat amid a sea of books and explained that she was looking to admit "intellectuals". "Not me, then," I thought.
What changed my mind was a place on Eton College's Universities Summer School. The summer school, which was set up in 1982, offered ten days of intensive tuition to promising children at local state schools The residential course (which was, and is, funded primarily by Eton) gives 120 sixthformers the opportunity to study their putative university subject in small groups of highly talented peers under the supervision of Eton's estimable teachers. In short, the summer school foreshadows the experience of being at university.
In terms of confidence building, nothing matches it. Unlike open days, which are organised by universities to encourage prospective applicants to "come and discover us" (on the model of English Heritage or National Trust sites), the summer school takes outstanding children and proves to them that they are able to thrive in a mock-university environment.J The syllabus for each subject is designed to complement and extend A-level work. The summer school is decidedly not a crammer or revision course.
Instead, it introduces pupils to the thrill of wider horizons, the possibility of challenging the limitations of their examination curriculum, and straying, experimentally, into the further reaches of their favourite subject.
In a small enough group and with enough encouragement, the shyest of sixthformers will discover that their contribution can match those of their peers. Detailed comments on written work, liberated from the structure of AS modules, gives a taste of the freedom and frankness of exchange that universities can provide. Probably for the first time in their lives, children at the Eton summer school discover what it means to pursue knowledge for its own sake.
Of course, there are more worldly things on offer, too: advice on preparing personal statements for the Ucas form, mock entrance interviews, and even the opportunity for informal discussion with visiting dons. Then there is what one Eton teacher described as "the inevitable summer-school romance": the pair of pupils who quickly decide that, to one another, they are even more fascinating than the wealth of opportunities on offer. This, too, confirms the summer school's status as a replica of a university.
Finally, there is the motivating power of envy to consider. I remember thinking as the precious ten days drew to a close how unfair it was that those Eton boys in their tail suits would soon be back from their expensive holidays to enjoy at their leisure the privilege of such exciting tuition.
We got just over a week - they got eight years.
In retrospect, I realise my sense of injustice was, at least in part, misplaced. I imagined Eton was always as wonderful as its summer school. I imagined term after term of intense tuition and academic inquiry under the auspices of inspired teachers encouraging their pupils to reach for the stars. I imagined an archetypal Oxbridge college because that was what Eton had been while the summer school lasted.
Recently I went back and talked to the teachers at Eton currently involved in organising the initiative. Without exception, they confirmed that teaching on the summer school was a deeply motivating and rewarding experience; one described it as professionally refreshing as a return to university itself. A room full of outstanding and challenging pupils, keen to extract everything they can from their teacher in a limited amount of time is as rare in the private sector as it is in the state.
It would be a fine thing if other prestigious public schools chose to organise summer schools on the Eton model. Perhaps some of them already do? Eton can offer only 120 places each summer, and there are many more prospective applicants from the state sector who need a boost to their confidence in the months before their Ucas forms are due. The summer school is a tried and tested way of bolstering those admissions piles. I write from grateful experience.
Ruth Scurr is an affiliated lecturer in the politics department, Cambridge University, and a fellow of and director of studies at Gonville and Caius College.