Robinson is the only college to consistently admit fewer state school applicants today than in the mid-2000sAndreas Praefcke/Wikimedia Commons

In 1999, state school pupil Laura Spence submitted her application to read Medicine at the University of Oxford. Her Oxford rejection – and subsequent acceptance into Harvard on a full academic scholarship – brought the nation’s attention to the concept of  ‘widening participation’ for the first time.

Less than a year later, Cambridge University Reporter quietly published a full breakdown of Cambridge’s maintained sector admissions for the very first time.

In full: Check the data for your own college

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Since then, Cambridge’s track record for admitting state school students has steadily improved. Barely half of the 2000 intake were educated in the state system — today, that proportion nears three-quarters. But the picture of Cambridge admissions is much more nuanced than that figure implies, with its 29 colleges achieving vastly fluctuating results when it comes to widening participation.

The usual suspects

Some colleges’ placements in the rankings are hardly a surprise. King’s has consistently admitted a high proportion of its students from the maintained sector, resulting in a progressive reputation. In 1999 the King’s cohort was 79% state-educated, at a time when the university average was only 53%. It remains one of the most consistent colleges statistically. 

Churchill, Homerton and Fitzwilliam have also maintained an impressive track record over the past 20 years, with maintained intake percentages consistently in the high 60s and low 70s. All four usually receive a high proportion of applicants from state schools: with more modern architecture, gownless dinners and communist flags, cultural perceptions of King’s and the Hill colleges play into that figure.

They also offer some of the most extensive widening participation schemes, with Homerton in particular having a history of proactive strategies – including the Higher Education Access Course.

At the other end of the spectrum, King Charles’s alma mater Trinity has consistently performed terribly in the rankings, admitting a rock-bottom 38% of its students from state schools in 2007, and recently coming third-last in 2021. It is worth noting that the effect of Trinity’s pioneering Maintenance Grant on their admissions statistics is yet to be seen in the university’s published data – as well as their offer to fund the accommodation fees of pooled students. In response to this, Trinity described the TMG as one of the “most comprehensive packages” of help available.

The correlation between financial investment and social mobility has been noted – and other colleges are demonstrating evidence of this already. St John’s and Caius have historically overrepresented private school students, at times rivalling Trinity. But both have seen recent marked increases: Johns has been slowly clawing itself upwards since 2016, while Caius experienced an enormous jump between 2020 and 2021. 

Their recent successes correlate with increased college funding for widening participation. 2016 marked the first year of the St Johns’ Studentships, a £2000 top-up bursary for students from low-income families. And in 2020, Caius expanded their admissions team to four full-time staff, including a dedicated Access and Outreach Tutor (interviewed on page 10).

Wider trends

Besides investment, a few colleges’ historical trends correlate with changes in their senior fellowship. Corpus Christi admitted very low state-school intakes in 1999 and 2000, before a sudden increase with the arrival of a new master. This pattern repeated in 2018.

By contrast, the arrival of a new master of Sidney Sussex in 2009 coincided with the college’s maintained sector admissions plummeting from 73% to 52%. Sidney defended their record on widening participation, noting that “with the single exception of the pandemic year, the College’s ratio was above the University’s.”

Thinking more broadly, changes in national education policy has also had an effect on Cambridge’s admissions – the largest to note being in reaction to the Conservative rise in tuition fees. In 2011, as fees were anticipated to triple to £9,000, the overall number of students admitted fell by 15,389, a decrease of 3.6% from the previous year.

This overall decrease at many colleges has disproportionately affected state-school applicants. Corpus, Caius and Kings all saw their maintained admissions decline by between 10–15% compared to before the 2010 Conservative election victory.


Mountain View

Features: Inside the Caius Admissions Office

This impact of this was short-lived, though. It remains to be seen whether other financial fluctuations, such as the current cost-of-living crisis, and further restructuring of tuition fees, will have an impact on future state-school intake.

Naturally, there are several outliers to these trends. In particular, Lucy Cavendish has been marked by a total deviation from Cambridge’s average intake – their first year of undergraduate admissions saw a record-breaking 90% of their students admitted from the maintained sector.

This massive success, however, has been damped by the fact that they are simultaneously the least well-endowed (£14 million to Trinity’s £1,286 million), with a significantly reduced ability to financially support disadvantaged students – a major drawback of these collegiate disparities.

Red-brick Robinson

Surprisingly, the unenviable crown of Cambridge’s most privately-educated college goes to red-brick Robinson, where almost half of the student body seems to have received a downgrade in historical ambiance upon arriving in Britain’s second-oldest university.

Cambridge’s youngest college, founded in 1977, is a strong outlier in the data. Whereas all other colleges show increases in the proportion of state school students over the past two decades, Robinson’s trendline is solidly negative.

Consistently sporting a maintained sector percentage in the mid-60s and gaining a relatively positive reputation for state school outreach, it has fallen consistently (despite an outlier of 61.3% in 2016) and as low as 41.3% in 2018. Rising back up to 55.3% in 2021, the College relies heavily on the pool, which constitutes 16.9% of its offers.

Responding to these statistics, Dr Lizzi Rawlinson-Mills, Robinson’s recently-appointed Admissions Tutor for Widening Participation, told Varsity that “excluding the mature colleges, eleven colleges fall below [the University average of 72%.] Every college has their unique set of circumstances and challenges and like all the colleges, we are committed to improving the diversity of our intake at Robinson.”

She also claimed that the college’s 2021 intake had been the “most diverse to date” in the last ten years, although the data indicates that the college admitted a greater proportion of state school students three times in the last decade.


Across these 22 years of data, some colleges have been consistent overachievers while others have been lagging behind. But in recent years, colleges with poor historic showings have put concerted efforts into improving access to Cambridge: Caius and Robinson have, for the last two admissions cycles, significantly expanded the size of their outreach teams, while Trinity and John’s have put funds into generous bursary schemes.

Historically cemented perceptions of certain colleges, which have in the past influenced the decisions of state school applicants, are thus slowly changing.

With the cost-of-living crisis, the government’s upcoming reorganisation of tuition fees, and the changing face of Cambridge’s Admissions Offices, college admissions remain relatively unpredictable year-on-year.

Several colleges were contacted for comment.