Oxbridge Rebels

Are Oxford and Cambridge still the glittering prizes for students from independent schools? Victoria Neumark reports

Autumn, and university entrance is on everybody’s mind. Should you take a shot and go for Oxford or Cambridge? With Gordon Brown the first prime minister not to have attended Oxbridge since 1945, have the rose-tinted glasses fallen from the eyes of today’s school-leavers?

Certainly the ‘ivory towers’ no longer gleam so brightly for a small but significant stream of individualists heading the other way, be it to US universities, business opportunities or a decided preference for vibrant nightlife, ‘a life you can call your own’ and getting away from all those private-school kids you’ve spent so much time with. Young businessman Xan Morgan talks enthusiastically rather about “lessons I’ve learned from life” and how “being quite naughty at school and liking the bright lights, I wanted to be home in London, and Oxford felt small.”

You can catch up with some of these rebels on Facebook. There you will find the We Hate Oxbridge Society, the ‘I never wanted to go to Oxbridge anyway’ group (21 members), the ‘Oxbridge Rejects are Cooly-Cool’ group and ‘I got rejected from Oxbridge 2007 but who cares it’s their loss anyway’ (19 members).

Who cares indeed? Looking at admission numbers, Oxford alone gets almost 14,000 applications each year, all from straight-A students, for 3,500 places- so a few less helps them out. Currently the colleges favour independent-school applicants but they are being pressured by the government to increase the state school intake. This means, says Martin Stephen of St Paul’s, “We are in danger of giving a place at a top university as a compensation for disadvantage, when it should be a reward for achievement.”

At the moment that is not happening and top schools such as Eton, Wycombe Abbey, St Paul’s, St Mary’s Ascot, Winchester, Westminster and North London Collegiate and the Royal Grammar School, Guildford, have doubled numbers going to the oldest universities in the last five years. Their staff can afford to agree with Tony Little, Master of Eton, that “While there are always (and always have been) examples of strange decisions, boys (and the school) see the admissions process as challenging but fair.”

Others feel less certain. The internet is abuzz with resentment from rejected candidates and their families, as numbers going to Oxbridge from such respected schools as Manchester High, Nottingham High and Radley decline. Says Pip Marshall of Nottingham, “My own stepdaughter would, on first analysis, be heavily discriminated against as she is female, has graduate parents and attends a private school. What this doesn’t state is that her parents are separated, have retrained several times to keep in average jobs and she has gone to private school on a scholarship with herself and the rest of us making sacrifices and buying second-hand. But are these the type of middle-class, stereotypical values we all now love to hate?”

Geoff Lucas (secretary general of the headmasters’ and headmistresses’ conference HMC) is confident that “Oxbridge will maintain absolute standards”, perhaps a coded message that there is not much to worry about for private-school parents. As he added wryly, “The more they develop additional tests on ability and achievement for individual subjects, the more that will favour the kind of parents who want the best for their children, who are often the ones who send their children to an independent school.”
A note of caution here from Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College that it is the children who are going to university, not the parent.  The job of a good parent is to help the child identify and achieve what they themselves want. ‘I went to Oxbridge so my children should do, too,’ mentality doesn’t necessarily work.

Laura Hazlerigg went to Oxford and was keen for daughter Eliza to follow in her footsteps. At Queen’s Gate school in London, Eliza was put in for an Oxford college but she skipped the interview. “We spent three days and nights arguing,” says Laura, “But it’s her life and she chose what’s right for her.” At Birmingham, Eliza will study biological sciences in a top academic environment. Additional bonuses are an industrial placement, a campus university without the ‘cliqueyness’ of colleges.

For Oxford and Cambridge do not appeal to all. Some of the courses seem antiquated, as do dress codes and quaint rituals. The cities, if beautiful, are small and sleepy compared to the Manchester, Leeds or Birmingham buzzy night-life. The high workload (one or two essays a week) and intensive contact with academic staff repel some.

So is it now ‘uncool’?

Nicholas Shrimpton, deputy principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, reflects. “We still get lots of clever independent school applicants, and they seem ‘cool’ to me both at interview and once they are here. But I suspect that some (especially boys) who might have applied in the past are put off by the current exam treadmill of GCSE, AS and A2 in successive years, and the feeling that you have to have a ‘perfect’ record at the first two of these (lots of A*s at GCSE, 3 As at AS) to stand a chance. In this sense the Oxbridge applicants might seem geeky – they apparently need to have been impeccably well-behaved and hard-working between the ages of 15 and 18, and not to have knocked down a single hurdle.”

Like many, he sees new forms of testing as positive for both the college and also the applicants.”The return of Oxford entrance exams, or rather ‘aptitude tests’, in History and English this year may help the eccentric, or naughty, or rebellious, or late-developing candidate get another chance to demonstrate aptitude and cleverness. I welcome this because I’d like a few more individualists, rather than slaves of the system.”

That said Cambridge University published a list of 20 A-levels which are a less effective preparation for our courses.Don’t take more than one of these if you want to go to Cambridge. They include sports science, media studies, theatre studies, accounting, business studies, design and technology.?
College interviews loom in December. The interview process has been described as ‘notoriously eccentric,’ including questions like: “Here is a piece of bark, please talk about it” (biological sciences, Oxford); “Put a monetary value on this teapot” (philosophy, politics and economics, Cambridge); and “At what point is a person ‘dead’?” (medicine, Cambridge).
Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford advises applicants that they “need to know their subject and be clear as to their motivation and interest. They should have enough understanding of relevant material relating to their academic discipline to be able to talk confidently for ten minutes each on two or three different aspects, and they should certainly keep a copy of, and re-read, any work that they submit. Don’t panic, don’t feel that you have to know everything about your subject, and don’t feel you need a dozen new interview outfits to be successful. Just relax, and be yourself.”

Adds Nicholas Shrimpton: “Be keen.”

For parents who believe that the only glittering prize is Oxbridge and can convince their offspring likewise, you can go that extra step and invest in tuition from private agencies like Gabbitas www.gabbitas.co.uk or Oxbridge Applications www.oxbridgeapplications.com . Otherwise, listen to your child’s choice of Sussex by the sea, Newcastle for its ale or Leeds for the coolest mix of people- and realise that any of the Top 20 Russell Group of universities can point them towards a bright future .