Freshers are arriving in Cambridge this weekRich Tea

As students prepare to return for Michaelmas term, the BBC has profiled some incoming first-generation students, talking about the path they took to Cambridge. The article highlights a new statistic, revealed to the BBC: this October, Cambridge will be admitting its highest proportion of British state school educated undergraduates in 35 years.

It’s positive news from a representational perspective, and also means that the University is continuing to hit its targets for state school intake. What the BBC left out, however, was any context for the statistic – the new number is the highest in several years, but only after the past four years fell beneath peak intake, in 2012. A closer look reveals more about what the number really means.

What has been said?

The BBC’s report says “Cambridge's latest admissions figures, shown to the BBC, will reveal that more than 63% of new students are state-educated – the highest since at least 1982”, noting that stats from before then are unreliable due to outdated recording methods.

It goes on to note that Oxford, Bristol, Durham and St Andrews “had even lower proportions of state pupils” in their intake last year.

So is it a record high?

Yes – but it’s questionable whether that’s really so remarkable. Cambridge’s UK undergraduate admissions statistics over the past decade have shown a broad increase in state school students accepted, increasing from around 55% in the mid-00s, to figures in the low sixties for the past five years.

Cambridge University’s communications office were unable to provide an exact figure, and the wording of the BBC article suggests it must be bigger than the previous record high of 63.3%, from 2012’s intake, but lower than 64%. That number from 2012, and one from 2008, represent the biggest recent jumps in state school intake year-on-year, and both appear to be somewhat anomalous.

In short, the new high is only remarkable because it means Cambridge has finally surpassed its anomalous figure for 2012.

If it hadn’t been for the spike in 2012, this news story could have been rewritten every year since 2011. The same could be said for statistics regarding female, BME and disabled students for most years in recent decades.

Without the exact stats, it is also not known whether a record proportion of state intake actually means a record number of state school students joining, though generally increasing overall admissions numbers suggests it does.

After dropping again in 2013, state school intake has risen successively, culminating in a figure of 62.5% state versus 37.5% independent for October 2016’s fresher cohort – higher than any previous figure except 2012.

Each year, Cambridge has to make an agreement with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), which includes admissions targets. For Cambridge, these targets have since 2012 included set targets for state school admissions. These latest figures mean that the University has exceeded its target for the sixth year running.

What does it all mean?

If you believe Cambridge’s student body should better represent the makeup of wider society, this is good news. It is also a coup for the University, which is attempting to increase its state school intake, and benefits from any national media coverage that breaks down myths about Cambridge admissions. Access is not just about statistics - image also matters and news stories like this are able to reach out to young people in a way that data does not.

It also means that Cambridge is likely to continue to fare much better in this area than Oxford. Although Oxford’s 2017 admissions statistics have not yet been released, in 2016, only 58% of their UK intake were students from state schools. Oxford does not set targets for overall state school intake in its OFFA agreements, instead focusing on admitting more students from state schools with historically lower participation rates.  

Looking at the figure more skeptically, however, it’s clear that this statistic by itself is pretty unremarkable. The test will be to see if the University can build on the latest jump. This seems possible as the BBC's suggested increase is much smaller than the jumps in 2008 (4.1%) and 2012 (4.5%), but the proportion could just as easily slip again, as it did in 2011.

The University’s broad admissions story remains the same: gradual increases in the proportion of BME, disabled, state-school educated and female students. Increases should be anticipated to occur every year, rather than being treated as remarkable in each instance

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