Wellington CollegeHertzsprung

The master of a prestigious public school has accused Cambridge and other elite universities of exhibiting bias against public school pupils in their admissions processes. 

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Dr Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, said that “from our perspective it looks as if some public school students are being discriminated against at the final hurdle.” A spokesman for the University of Cambridge rejected the allegation, saying "all applications are individually assessed on their academic merits. We admit the best students regardless of background."

Seldon, also known for his biographies of political figures such as Tony Blair and Sir John Major,  went on to criticise what he saw as a public “jealousy and hostility” towards privately-educated pupils. "Positive discrimination in favour of state school people has become the hatred that dare not speak its name”, he continued.

An Oxford graduate himself, Seldon claims that while he believes 62 of his students are bright enough to get an interview at Oxbridge, he expects only 20 offers of places. However, Cambridge statistics for 2011 reveal the extent of the competition for places, with more than 4,500 applicants being rejected despite going on to achieve the requisite A*AA grades at A-level.  The overall success rate is in fact higher for students from independent schools when compared to the maintained sector, putting into question Dr Seldon’s allegations.

Vicky Hudson, CUSU Access Officer, dismissed Seldon's claims, saying that the Wellington master "seems to have confused rigour with bias". She continued: "The Cambridge admissions system seeks out the applicants with the highest potential to succeed here, irrespective of background, and this means looking beyond headline exam grades and considering the educational context in which an applicant has achieved them."

"It is no surprise that Cambridge's disproportionate private sector intake has been reducing after state schools have benefited from years of sustained investment and improvement under the last Government. Anyone who believes that parents can trick the admissions system by moving their children into the state sector at the last moment seriously underestimates the sophistication of the process."

A favourite of education secretary Michael Gove, Seldon has been a regular contributor to national debates over education standards and reforms. He drew criticism last year for writing an article celebrating lower GCSE results despite the fact that his own school no longer puts candidates forward for GCSE exams, preferring an international baccalaureate programme.

His remarks echo those by other public figures, such as actor Benedict Cumberbatch, last week announced as the guest director of the Cambridge Science Festival, who said in 2012 that “all the posh bashing that goes on” in the UK had frustrated him enough to consider moving to America. 


Analysis - Cambridge's record on admissions: proud or prejudiced?

Tony Leech

This week Anthony Seldon provoked controversy when he accused Oxbridge of exhibiting bias against public school pupils in the admissions process. His comments were ridiculed by CUSU Access Officer Vicky Hudson, who said Seldon had “confused rigour with bias”. Is there any evidence in favour of his allegations?

Cambridge admissions figures for 2011 seem to suggest that, if anything, the admissions process is more kind to applicants from private schools than others. The proportion of successful applicants from independent (that is, non-state-maintained) schools in the 2011 cycle was 41.2 per cent, an increase on the previous year. 

Cambridge: anti-public school?

The success rate for independent school applicants was 33 per cent, pupils from grammar schools were next with a 31 per cent success rate, while sixth form colleges and comprehensives had rates of 26.7 per cent and 22.8 per cent respectively. For 2,657 applications in 2011, students from comprehensives saw 605 acceptances, while their independent school counterparts saw 999 acceptances for 3,002 applications.

Cambridge does not operate any form of quota system for state school pupils, as Seldon appears to be suggesting, and responding to his comments, a university spokesman rejected his allegations, saying that “all applications are individually assessed on their academic merits”. 

Dr Seldon is not the only prominent figure to have made such claims of bias recently. Peter Hogan, headmaster of the elite Loretto School in Edinburgh, has this week suggested that Scottish universities are engaging in “social engineering” to widen access, at the expense of the most talented pupils. The Scottish National Party government published draft legislation in 2012 that would create quotas, leading to fines for institutions for failing to recruit enough students from poorer backgrounds. 

The decision was taken in response to figures that showed that only 27 per cent of students at Scottish universities came from lower socio-economic classes in 2010/11, compared to 31 per cent in England and Wales.