Dr Chris Scott and David Rennie: "At any Oxbridge college you are fighting an uphill battle"Harry Hult for Varsity

Dr Chris Scott’s office is in a cosy corner of Gonville & Caius college, tucked away in the College’s leafy – and appropriately-named – Tree Court. “You’ve looked at the facts,” he tells me from an armchair across the room. “Caius was radically out of step with the rest of the university until recently… That has changed.”

Chris was appointed Caius’ inaugural Tutor for Admissions and Outreach less than three years ago. The year before, the college admitted just 55% of its cohort from the maintained sector – the lowest of any Cambridge college in 2019.

In 2021, that figure rocketed to 75% – a fair margin above the University average, and an astounding increase of 20 percentage points in just one year. Figures released by Caius for 2022 and 2023 indicate that that increase has been maintained – so what exactly lies behind the College’s meteoric rise?

“Social engineering” seems to be the media’s go-to explanation, with debates about Oxbridge admissions deeply embedded in nationwide ‘culture wars’. During nearly every recent admissions cycle, national newspapers erupt with testimonies from crestfallen pupils and irate parents, alleging discrimination against independent schools.

“We’ve massively ramped up our access and outreach capacity at Caius”

I put this to Chris – he doesn’t seem bothered by those sorts of accusations. “I’m aware that some people see social engineering, they see discrimination. That’s not reflective of what I see as an Admissions Tutor: considering applicants individually and in their contexts is not positive discrimination, it’s fair.”

Nevertheless, it’s clear that his appointment at Caius precipitated a significant shift in the college’s maintained sector intake. David Rennie, Caius’ Schools Liaison Officer (SLO), makes no secret of that fact: he tells me Chris has had a “pretty seismic” effect on the college’s admissions process.

Certainly part of the shift reflects changes to how Caius assesses its applications. Where the college’s admissions policy used to emphasise “academic achievement”, it now reads “academic potential, regardless of background”. Caius was late among Cambridge colleges in implementing this change – the government’s Office for Students has tasked universities with ‘widening participation’ for over a decade.

But what debates about Oxbridge admissions usually fail to address is that widening participation begins much earlier than with the applications themselves. The ‘seismic effect’ David mentions lies not with offer-making, but with the college’s efforts to ensure that every student with the potential for Cambridge makes an application in the first place.

“We’ve massively ramped up our access and outreach capacity at Caius,” Chris explains. “My role as a full-time admissions and outreach tutor was created in 2020… before that we had two part-time admissions tutors who had no capacity or responsibility for outreach.”

That remains the setup employed by the vast majority of colleges, where an SLO, generally a recent graduate, is the only full-time member of staff dedicated to outreach.

As David points out, even SLOs “as a concept are barely ten years old.” His impression is that Cambridge admissions offices before then were full of well-intentioned people, simply being overstretched and under-resourced.

“Ultimately we couldn’t do what we do without students – they are our biggest asset.”

And although SLOs are today a feature of every Cambridge admissions office, the implication remains that funding, and consequent capacity for outreach programs, varies significantly by college.

In contrast to what he terms the “old-style Cambridge model of outreach”, where colleges would simply wait until schools (often selective or fee-paying) got in touch to request school visits or college tours, Chris describes himself as a “big believer in sustained intervention”. Key to that philosophy is proactively reaching out to schools in underrepresented areas, to ensure that outreach efforts are targeted to those students that stand to benefit the most.

Chris’ achievements in this respect are not insignificant. In these conversations, there is a clear sense of the inertia that plagues any attempt to effect change in a centuries-old institution such as Cambridge. In David’s words, “at any Oxbridge college you are fighting an uphill battle… Chris shook up a culture that can get complacent.”

But neither Chris nor David are under any illusions that Caius has got it all solved. “We are still some way off a position where everybody who has the academic potential for Cambridge is applying.”

Indeed, although Chris claims that applications from Caius’ link areas have increased noticeably, university data shows that the overall proportion of state-school applicants to Caius remained roughly constant between 2019–21, at 61%.

For Chris, the most important factor in encouraging applications from underrepresented students is simple: reassurance that they will fit in at a university whose name and prestige carry so much cultural and socioeconomic baggage.


Mountain View

Varsity investigates: 'Widening participation' since 1999

“Applicants want to hear from students like them, with voices like theirs, who can give their authentic experiences.” To that end, the support he receives from the upwards of 100 Caius undergrads who volunteer their time is indispensable: “Ultimately we couldn’t do what we do without students – they are our biggest asset.”

‘Authentic’ experiences seem vital: Chris notes that for many students there will be aspects of their time in Cambridge that they enjoy less than others. After all, Caius today is still far from reflective of the UK’s diverse population as a whole.

But to those potential applicants still put off from applying for fear they won’t fit in, or that they won’t find others with backgrounds like their own, Chris makes a compelling case: “You can be part of that social change in coming here – that’s the best attitude to have.”