Liverpool Pier Head: Oxbridge applicants from areas such as the North West can be few and far between Beverley Goodwin

I wear my Scouse accent as a badge of pride. In a sea of home counties voices, I relish the opportunity of stretching it to its comedic limits – the gutturals, the sing-song rising pitch, and the hours of fun that my peers seem to derive from my usage of the (quite frankly sensible) plural ‘yous’. What’s more, I like to think that I give as good as I get – for every ‘chickhen’ or jibe about tyre thefts, I have at my disposal an arsenal of comebacks which generally boil down to being a member of the Conservative party or wearing terrible trainers. However, beneath the surface of this light-hearted fractiousness lies a more insidious issue, one that has plagued Cambridge for generations – that of the North-South divide.

“The next step is ensuring that the University is a level playing field”

It’s a question that most Northern students will be asked upon returning home after Freshers’ Week: “Are they all posh?” Indeed, this almost tribal ‘us versus them’ approach is what prevents many students from backgrounds like mine applying to Cambridge; whilst working at an outreach day in Liverpool over Easter, a lot of prospective students voiced their concerns to me about fitting in. Cambridge to an undergraduate is already a daunting environment, and most students, regardless of background, will relate to the famous impostor syndrome of being pitted against people who just seem to be so much better at your course than you are. Add to that the alienation of struggling to find anyone who speaks with your accent or knows what a chip butty is, and it can be easy to see why some parts of the North saw fewer than ten applications to Oxbridge in 2013.

It is very easy to assume that students from less economically privileged backgrounds should simply face their fears and take the leap into the unknown when it comes to applying to Cambridge, but it is simply not that straightforward. From my own experience, I know that the rampant inequality in the University can lead to a sense of isolation and a questioning of identity for even the most confident of Northerners. One of my closest friends in Cambridge attended a top London school, and during Freshers it felt like he knew everyone from back home. I thought I was lucky knowing a handful of people from my school, but it pales in comparison to the ‘old boys network’ of London private schools which seems to permeate every corner of the University.

“I find it equally reductive to consider the North-South divide as a binary one”

Not only do home counties students seem to have the upper hand when it comes to getting a foot in the door at Cambridge, but equally one cannot understate how London-centrism affects almost every other aspect of university life. It is a simple fact that students from south-eastern England have a geographical and, statistically speaking, economic advantage when it comes to the pursuit of the extra-curricular activities – internships, sports and the arts. As someone who has worked with the outreach schemes so often cited by the University in defence of its accessibility issue, I recognise more than most the importance of encouraging students from diverse backgrounds to apply to Cambridge – but the next step is ensuring that the University is a level playing field in which each and every student has the opportunity to enrich their CV and reap the rewards of a Cambridge education.

In spite of its name, I find it equally reductive to consider the North-South divide as a binary one. To paint our country as entirely bottom-heavy, with only wastelands and whippet dogs surviving beyond the M25, is to ignore the diverse regional variations in culture and privilege. I myself acknowledge that I am a product of the latter: I attended a high-performing grammar school known for its success with Oxbridge applications and undoubtedly am less representative of a bright Northern student than someone from the comprehensive system, for example. If anything, recognising the debate surrounding the North-South divide as being multi-faceted further highlights the inadequacy of Cambridge at appealing to the poorest in society. 2017 figures tell us 62% of Cambridge students are now state-educated, but in the self-congratulatory afterglow of this news, it is crucial that the University asks itself just how many of these students went to the right state schools, in five-bed-detached catchment areas with years-long waiting lists.


Mountain View

The North-South divide ignores our country’s valuable middleground

Acknowledging the existence of the North-South divide in Cambridge does not negate the many amazing friendships and connections I’ve been privileged enough to make with people who could probably afford to pay my college bill five times over. Nor should we attempt to dismantle the notion of the Cambridge meritocracy, key to every narrative of ‘Northern-lad-done-good’ at the University. However, from the ground up we simply need to do more to ensure that the brightest students from the poorest, most diverse and most unashamedly Northern backgrounds not only apply to Cambridge but thrive at Cambridge. Our government, in its debate over the grammar school system, consistently promotes education as the pathway to self-betterment. So why is our country’s figurehead educational institution obstructing this pathway?