You might imagine that school pupils from a tough council estate in East London would have the most difficulty in reaching the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
But statistics show that the sons and daughters of former mining towns in the valleys north of Cardiff are just as unlikely to attend the elite institutions, according to the Welsh government’s new “Oxbridge ambassador”.
Paul Murphy is the Labour MP for Torfaen, where he grew up as a “working- class boy from the valleys” before going on to study at Oriel College, Oxford.
His ambassadorial appointment has not met with universal approval, with critics saying that the Cardiff government should concentrate on improving its own universities, and that encouraging students to leave Wales will drain the country’s coffers.
“Generally speaking, Wales is sending far fewer people to Oxbridge than they did in the past 30 to 40 years,” Mr Murphy said, a point he has made repeatedly in the country’s press.
According to a report released last year by Mr Murphy’s office, there was one application to Oxbridge for every 36 people in the City of London between 2006 and 2009, while in Blaenau Gwent, a valley to the west of Torfaen, there was one application for every 6,000 people in the same period.
Mr Murphy added that the problem lay with acceptances as well as application rates. A young person from the southwest valleys is 10 times less likely to go to Oxbridge than someone from Hertfordshire, the report argues, and five times less likely to apply.
The blame for this lay not with the universities but rather with a variety of other factors, Mr Murphy said.
Devolution in Wales has meant that “people are more conscious of their Welshness”, he said, so there was “a tendency to stay local”.
Mr Murphy added that as a boy he had Oxbridge graduates as teachers, but with the expansion in Welsh universities over the past couple of decades, the “majority of teachers [in Wales] would have degrees from a Welsh university so there’s an assumption you go to a Welsh university”.
Some Welsh schools exhibited an outright “hostility” to Oxbridge that needed to end, he said.
In encouraging applications to Oxbridge, “not for one second am I saying that Welsh universities are not good enough”, he stressed.
But Simon Thomas, the Plaid Cymru shadow education minister, said that the appointment was “surprising”, as the first priority should be to improve Welsh universities.
Regardless of where they study in the UK, Welsh students pay only a proportion of their tuition fees - from next year, the first £3,575 - with the Cardiff government making up the difference. Encouraging them to go to England will therefore decrease the amount that can be spent on Welsh institutions, Mr Thomas argued.
He also questioned why Welsh students should not be encouraged to apply to “Edinburgh, Stanford, the LSE or Beijing and not just the traditionalism of Oxbridge”.
It is the “prejudices of the Oxbridge colleges” rather than those of Welsh schools that explains why fewer students are accepted, Mr Thomas added.
This is simply not true, according to a spokeswoman for the University of Cambridge. Welsh applicants had a success rate in 2011-12 of 23 per cent as opposed to a national average of 21 per cent she said.
A spokeswoman for the University of Oxford said that the acceptance rate for Welsh students was “not significantly lower” than average.
Oxbridge hot spots: density of offers across England and Wales
This map, adapted from a graphic contained in Torfaen MP Paul Murphy’s 2012 report on Oxbridge access, shows how many people there were for each offer made by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in different parts of England and Wales in 2006-09.
In Mr Murphy’s interpretation, the data show that access to Oxbridge diminishes “the further away you come from the Home Counties”.
“When the Oxbridge offer rate per capita is mapped across England and Wales, the dearth of Welsh students from Wales, especially in the valleys, is striking,” the report states.
“The low offer rate experienced in the Welsh valleys is matched only in East London,” it adds, attributing the wide discrepancies to socio-economic deprivation and low aspiration.
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