Cambridge’s access problem lies in its refusal to reduce offer grades for the most needy

Though it’s been proudly operating an exclusionary admissions process since the early 13th century, not even the country’s most ‘unequal’ university can absorb relentlessly negative branding without having to concede at some point. It was perhaps inevitable then, a few days ago, that Cambridge would announce a cobbled-together access scheme that gives 100 disadvantaged students a ‘second chance’ at joining its undergraduate ranks through clearing.

Hailed a ‘step in the right direction’ by the Sutton Trust, the scheme reserves 100 places for ‘originally rejected’ applicants obtaining ‘better than expected A-Level grades’. Ethnicity will not be a factor in the process. Places, it has been revealed, will be offered to students living in areas that do not normally send individuals to Oxbridge.

Given that sizeable chunks of both mainstream political parties continue, unapologetically, to recruit their MPs from Oxbridge alumni circles, and that 42 out of the 56 most recent Prime Ministers studied at Oxbridge, it’s impossible to tell whether the announcement is a cynical and necessary riposte to bad publicity, or a genuine desire to harness untapped working-class potential. Guaranteeing just 100 places for working-class students out of a population of 3,500 suggests the former – and will do nothing to pacify national concern that Oxbridge remains an institution firmly and predominantly associated with posh, white, middle-class social groups.

The scheme, while offering some good news, possesses a fundamental problem. Offering a ‘second chance’ to disadvantaged students whose applications had been initially denied is perfectly noble, but also lazy.

There’s an irritating inconsistency in Cambridge’s presumed response to NEON’s ‘Enabling Wider Access to Higher Education’ report – which revealed just how few white, working-class students from Low Participation Neighbourhoods (LPN) were attending top UK universities. Not only did NEON specify universities’ rejection of candidates from LPNs as a contributing factor: it also identified the sad reality that very few students from underrepresented backgrounds apply to these institutions in the first place.  

With this in mind, a far more effective strategy by Cambridge would be to waiver its abiding commitment to unnecessarily high offer grades for those students exhibiting great potential in interview, but whose academic record and predicted grades do them a disservice.

Tired rebuttals made by the university usually involve an assertion that the context of a student’s educational background is already taken into account when making, or declining to make, an offer. However, since the data shows minimal evidence of disadvantaged youngsters making it into universities like Cambridge, Oxford and other London-based institutions – it’s clear that something is going hugely wrong during this process. Another argument is that staff shouldn’t fall into an ‘ecological fallacy’ trap, assuming that an individual from a low performing school must automatically be low performing. This is flattering, but clearly out-of-touch. Psychologically, lower offer grades would be of immense benefit to those already struggling with ‘imposter syndrome’ from regional, working-class and underrepresented communities.

Using data based on 30 UK universities, the Sutton Trust – a social mobility charity – found that lowering university offers for disadvantaged pupils ‘by just two grades’ could lead to a ‘50% increase in the number of free school meals eligible pupils admitted to top universities.’ They found that in universities where they profess to use ‘contextual’ data when making offers, only 4 of the top institutions committed to reducing a grade offer; while arbitrary decisions about how to use contextual data left many students suffering from missed opportunities that they otherwise deserved.

Crucially, the report found no evidence that universities who contextualise offers and reduce grades are more likely to see higher dropout rates, lower degree completion or lower degree results than among their peers.

Clearly, then, Cambridge’s preciousness about A-Levels reflecting ‘innate’ and somehow all-persevering intelligence despite extenuating circumstances is unrealistic and unnecessarily harsh. In effect: what an individual receives at A-Level is as much about their teachers, school resources, family background and school ethos as much as it is individual capacity to work hard. The data provided by the Sutton Trust about reduced grades posing no threat to academic excellence refutes every illogical reasoning the university cites behind their refusal to reduce offers for the most needy.

Ultimately, the government is responsible for tackling educational inequality in secondary schools, not Cambridge. But throw livelihood-wrenching austerity and heavy regional funding imbalances into the mix; alongside a tendency for overworked teachers to inaccurately predict their students’ grades – and the way universities like Cambridge strive to ‘nurture diversity’ requires drastic reconsideration and upheaval.

Fair enough, some students from LPN areas don’t actually need a lower offer to reach Cambridge – but many do. And Cambridge needs to recognise that.