Over 90% of Lucy Cav's students hail from state-educated backgrounds LucyCav via wikimedia commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LEP,LCFall2022,_0116.jpg

“Three cheers to Lucy Cavendish for becoming the first Cambridge college to admit more than 90% of their UK students from state schools!” I imagine, as someone from a state comprehensive, that’s how I’m supposed to feel about this near proportional intake. I’m afraid I’m feeling rather too cynical about the whole thing to say “Hip! Hip! Hooray!” even once.

“The idea that state schoolers get a free ride to Oxbridge is propagated by those who feel their privately educated children have been cheated of a place.”

Claims of social engineering dominate public discourse around Oxbridge admissions. Between our previous Vice-Chancellor telling The Times that the University was “intending to reduce over time the number of people who are coming from independent school backgrounds”, and the President of Lucy Cavendish espousing the college’s noble mission “to open its doors to more groups who have been historically excluded” in a recent episode of an education podcast, it is easy to see how fears that something unfair is taking place have taken root. The irony is, the more the University seeks to be transparent, the more it is accused of conspiracy.

A week or so after I had received my offer, my sister told me of the businessman she had spoken to on the train. Upon hearing of my success, and presumably her ever-so-slight West Country accent, his first question had been “does he go to a state school?”.

The idea that state schoolers get a free ride to Oxbridge is propagated by those who feel their privately educated children have been cheated of a place. In the absence of a willingness to identify a weak spot in their child’s application, they decide their disadvantage was not having one. The truly disadvantaged, in the presence of outreach programmes and contextual admissions, are told to feel lucky because “fifty years ago, you wouldn’t have been here”.

My scepticism surrounding Lucy Cavendish’s disruption of the system has nothing to do with baseless accusations that state students are being artificially selected. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that a college with a public mission of diversifying its intake will repel an Etonian, who will apply to Trinity upon discovering that, of its UK offers, only 58% go to state schoolers. Rather, I suspect that underneath this headline is an uglier truth rearing its head – that state students still experience a systemic disadvantage when applying to Oxbridge.

A quick perusal of the University’s admission statistics reveals that Lucy Cavendish offered more than half of its places in this record-breaking admissions cycle to students through the Winter Pool. Could it be that a disproportionate number of state students are being pooled, considered ‘about good enough’, but not quite excelling at interview?

The independent Westminster school’s raison d’être, it seems, is to get students into Oxbridge. Application preparation is so rigorous it consistently places first in rankings of ‘Oxbridge factories’. Two and a half hours away in Dorset, I felt grateful that the effort had been made to give me just one practice interview. Its format was nothing like the half hour Zoom call that left me flustered on a rainy December afternoon. Unused to talking about biology in such a discursive way, I panicked in front of the director of the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology and asked if photosynthesis produced water (humanities students, I assure you, it does not, and any prospective BioNatSci will know this).

A dismissal of this argument by pointing out the near-equal acceptance rates of state and private candidates fails to consider who isn’t applying. The university-wide 72.5% 2022 state intake is hardly aligned with the educational background of our society. Independent schools seem to encourage students to ‘go for it’, not least because the more they get in, the more attractive their business becomes. In 2022, 11% of the 35,000 privately educated A-level students applied to Cambridge compared to just 4% of the 249,000 from the state sector.

“I hope state-educated students nationwide will be able to consider Oxbridge just as seriously as their privately educated peers”

It doesn’t feel controversial to suggest that the 4% of students who traverse the psychological selection barrier at many state schools would outperform the 11% at independent schools if they were subject to the same consistently excellent standard of education. State students do, after all, outperform privately educated students with the same academic profile at degree level. Acceptance rate equality relies on the harsh reality that only the best state students compete against the best and the very good of their equivalent private cohort. If we asked the brightest 11% of state schoolers to apply, I imagine we would be greatly disappointed by how these numbers change.


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Lucy Cavendish’s headline is indicative of an institution that is doing better than it was, but the category of state education is not a particularly useful one. A greater emphasis should be placed on specific contextual data such as the rate of continuation to higher education in an applicant’s specific school or area. No two grammar schools, state comprehensives, or private schools are built alike. That said, bringing the state 4% to 11 over time, through outreach and accessibility work, would help deliver on Lucy Cavendish’s manifesto university-wide, alongside making apparent the work that is left to do.

One day, I hope state-educated students nationwide will be able to consider Oxbridge just as seriously as their privately educated peers. Maybe then a re-evaluation of whether or not the receipt of a free education is in and of itself necessary application context can take place. Until that day, we shouldn’t grow complacent in the presence of misleading headlines. I don’t blame Lucy Cavendish for boasting; a story is a story. But, in this society which so values pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, giving the impression that the university is handing out golden tickets left, right and centre only creates more work for students who have worked hard to get here when it comes to proving they deserve it.