Magazine article The Spectator

Why So Many State School Pupils Drop out of Oxbridge

Magazine article The Spectator

Why So Many State School Pupils Drop out of Oxbridge

Article excerpt

The Laura Spence affair in 2000 enraged Gordon Brown. The fact that Laura, of Monkseaton Community High School, was rejected by Oxford's Magdalen College despite her straight-A predictions, seemed so deeply unfair to Mr Brown that he resolved to make Oxbridge mend its elitist ways and admit more state school pupils. A White Paper presented to Parliament in January 2003 accordingly proposed the 'rapid expansion' of measures intended to 'widen access', and the government has kept up the pressure on both Oxford and Cambridge ever since.

But there is new evidence to show that, far from helping them, the government's drive has inadvertently made many state school pupils' lives a misery. Teenagers who are unsuited to the Oxbridge life are being pushed into it by the government and by their target-obsessed schools, with the result that they are dropping out in unusually high numbers. Figures obtained by The Spectator from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) have revealed that as many as 69 per cent of students who left Cambridge University without an award in 2004-2005 were from a state school or college. The University of Oxford's record is little better, with a comparable figure of 60 per cent of dropouts educated in the state sector.

These statistics afford merely a glimpse into the intricacies of a highly controversial issue, and only account for students whose educational background is on record. None the less, the HESA figures deal a major blow to the powerful lobby that has been campaigning for 'wider' participation at Britain's top two universities. They also vindicate Oxford and Cambridge's continued attempts -- not always successful -- to resist Gordon Brown's demands to revamp the interview-orientated admissions system.

This is not to say that privately educated students are more capable or more intelligent than those who have been educated by the state. It is, however, to suggest that they are often better prepared for life at Oxford or Cambridge. It should be obvious to even the most resentful government minister that Oxbridge students coming from the state sector frequently have to deal with a number of challenges that are comparatively alien to their independent school counterparts. These challenges are even harder in cases where the state school entrant has, in practice, had to clear a lower hurdle to gain admission.

To start with, there is the great financial burden not just of tuition fees -- which can to a degree be offset by student loans -- but also of living costs that can easily become overwhelming. The workload at Oxbridge means that there is little time or opportunity for those struggling for money to hold down a part-time job, and if they try, the stress can become unbearable.

Then there is the potentially elitist social side to Oxford, which can feel to the unprepared student like a collage of unwelcoming cliques and hostile clubs.

Lorna Batty, a high-flying state school student who left Oxford in 2005 after just one term, admits having found it difficult to find her feet at the university. 'I found coping with the workload very difficult in terms of balancing work and life. Partly, this may have been due to my own lack of confidence and the pressure I felt to live up to the Oxford standards, particularly as I was the first in my family to go to university. …

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