it isn’t Debbie Prentice we’ve got to thank for the state of Cambridge access - it’s the Conservative PartyAdarsh Nayak with Permission for Varsity

In February of this year, Vice-Chancellor Deborah Prentice visited the North West in the name of “outreach”, writing in the Liverpool Echo that she wished more of the “talented students” from the region would think of applying to Cambridge.

But it is clear from this year’s admissions statistics that whatever Cambridge is doing to encourage students from the North West to apply is not working. Varsity reported that only 6.8% of students accepted to the university were from the North West this year, down from 7.3% last year.

“Outreach does not go far enough, nor does it begin early enough”

The problem is clear: outreach does not go far enough, nor does it begin early enough. By the time a student reaches Year 12, it is likely that they have already begun to think about which university they might like to attend, and, more prudently, which universities are out of their reach. If you are a student in the North West, that destination has already been decided for you by circumstances wholly out of your control. Your intellectual capabilities second to constant disruptions to your teaching, a lack of encouragement from responsible adults, and economic deprivation. By Year 12, you have received your GCSE results, which are among the lowest in the country - what on earth could convince you now that Cambridge is in your future?

If Cambridge wants students from the North West to dream bigger, I would first suggest that they do the same, and this starts with getting into secondary schools as early as possible. The only Oxbridge outreach I received in my secondary school in Merseyside – where more than 50% of students qualified for free school meals – was organised by one teacher, who gave up his free time to do so. It was not until I was in Year 12 that I learned that Magdalene College is the nominated outreach college for Merseyside.

What the University’s outreach initiatives also fail to consider is the importance of targeting parents. What I am not going to do in this article is write a sociology essay outlining how students from working class areas miss out on gaining cultural capital through their parents, but what I will say is that the evidence for this is already out there, for anyone who can be bothered to look for it - and the University should be bothered to look for it. I remember having to explain to my parents, neither of whom are university educated, what UCAS was, and why I had to choose between Oxford and Cambridge rather than just applying to both of them. It wasn’t lost on me that for many, that conversation would be the other way around. The key here is education and communication, because what we cannot have are more intelligent students being told by their own parents that “Oxbridge is not for families like us.”

“The deprivation faced by young people in the North West of England goes far beyond access to Higher Education”

One particularly irritating gap in the University’s admissions statistics is a breakdown of regional applications and acceptances by college. This appears to be a huge missed opportunity for the university to prove that their outreach works – that Magdalene has a thriving Merseyside intake thanks to their annual hour-long Zoom meetings with the small handful of Year 12s who knew that the session would be happening. Unless, of course, it doesn’t work, and what we would see instead is a continuation of the trend that exists within the statistics, where colleges like Trinity can get away with only accepting 52.7% state school students, because they know that the “access colleges” can be relied upon to pull up the university-wide average every time.

But there is only so much that one university can be held responsible for; the deprivation faced by young people in the North West of England goes far beyond access to Higher Education. The unemployment rate in the North West is 5.5% (the second highest in the UK after the East Midlands), compared to the national average of 4.3%, and it isn’t Debbie Prentice we’ve got to thank for that - it’s the Conservative Party.


Mountain View

Cambridge faces drop in state school admissions

The “managed decline” of Liverpool, proposed by Thatcher’s cabinet in 1981, is not merely a tragic anecdote to be brought up by the people of Merseyside to justify their hatred towards the former PM, it is the reality which millions of people from the region experience every single day. According to my crude calculations, there are more people from my year at school who have had babies than have gone to any university. In fact, in 2021, St. Helens, the town where I am from, had the second highest rate of teen pregnancy in England and Wales - the top spot was claimed by Blackpool, another town in the North West.

Outreach does not start in a Zoom meeting with Magdalene College in Year 12. It does not even start with Magdalene College, or Debbie Prentice, or the University of Cambridge at all. It starts in Westminster, and it starts by increasing public spending in areas like the NHS and the education sector. Do that, and the admissions statistics will begin to turn without Cambridge University even having to lift a finger.