Last week, Cambridge University revealed the introduction of a new foundation year scheme for ethnic minority and state school students who may have lower A-level grades than their privately educated counterparts. The purpose of this foundation year is to prepare students for the rigour of an Oxbridge degree, rather than to lower the expectations for state school students. This scheme is due to start in 2020.
Oxford’s Lady Margaret Hall is the only Oxbridge college to have already trialed the use of a foundation year for state school students who are at a natural disadvantage to the privately educated students, whose schools are equipped with the resources and the funding required to pass the Oxbridge admissions process.
Oxford and Cambridge have come under pressure to accept a more diverse range of students after a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that they rank in the bottom five of universities in terms of class equality. This was followed by a report by David Lammy MP which found that “The proportion of offers that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge made to applicants from the top two social classes rose from 79% in 2010 to 82% and 81% respectively in 2015”.
Lammy’s report also found that, in 2015, one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British A-level student and that between 2010-2015, a quarter (on average) of Cambridge colleges failed to make any offers to black British applicants.
It is unlikely that a foundation year is going to eliminate the barriers that state school students face as a result of reduced government spending on secondary education. Since 2015, average cuts to government spending on secondary schools have totaled £185.2k.
Cuts have left comprehensive schools needing to reduce hours and scrimp on resources, all in the face of tougher GCSE and A-level courses. This reduction in funding has meant that many comprehensive schools do not have the time or the money to timetable the sessions needed to prepare students for applying to Oxbridge. As a result of this, comprehensive school students are less prepared than students from private or grammar schools for applying to Oxford or Cambridge.
In 2016, 62.5% of students who were accepted into Cambridge and 57.7% of students who were accepted into Oxford were from state schools. While these statistics may look promising, 93% of students in the UK attend a state school and these statistics do not reflect that.
Lammy’s report also revealed that “over 80% (26 out of 32) Oxford colleges offer at least half of its total places to applicants from Independent and Grammar schools.”
Oxford University doesn’t make the distinction between students from state comprehensive schools and students from state grammar schools in their admissions statistics so, while over half of the Oxbridge intake may be state school students, many of these students will have come from grammar schools.
Different types of schools with different levels of funding means there is no level playing field in the admissions process for students from different backgrounds. The introduction of a foundation year is not going to address the fact that the inequality in the UK’s elite universities comes as a direct result of the inequality in the UK’s school system.
If class inequality in the UK is to be seriously tackled, then the government needs to increase investment in comprehensive schools. Investing from the bottom-up will ensure that comprehensive school students receive the support that they need when they apply to Oxbridge.
At the very least, Oxford and Cambridge should send people into comprehensive schools to support students in the admissions process, so that the opportunities that are available to people are not defined by the type of school that they attended.