The suggestion by Dorothy Byrne, the new head of Cambridge’s Murray Edwards College, that Etonians would be better off going to northern universities to meet “more diverse people” is ill-considered and flabby. Much like the reason she allegedly thought she was suitable for the job at the women-only college — because she thought that largely white men in positions of power had messed up the country during the pandemic.
It is hard to believe that the interview panel pressed her to expand on either of these statements. Has she heard of Kate Bingham, Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green?
Her call for Cambridge to take 93 per cent of its students from state schools for its intake to be representative of society misses the point of going to university. Certainly, Murray Edwards College cannot be representative of society if it excludes men.
“We all know that house prices are inflated in those areas where there are good state schools.”
Ms Byrne also ignores the fact that maintained schools are not identical; they include grammar schools and those in wealthy areas, for example. We all know that house prices are inflated in those areas where there are good state schools. And not all independent schools are like Eton — far from it. Ms Byrne may also be interested to know that many of them are located in the north, some of them near to where she went to university herself.
Universities should accept the best candidates, who are bright, curious, open-minded and ambitious, who love their chosen subjects and will work hard, seize the opportunities on offer, and demonstrate potential. Of course, universities should seek to widen access but they should not be chasing quotas.
Independent school students are not obsessed, as Ms Byrne claims, with getting into Oxford and Cambridge. Increasingly, students are choosing a course rather than a university and look at a wide range of universities to find the ones that might suit them best, for all sorts of reasons. A significant number of our students go to Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle — and even further north to Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews.
“Universities should seek to widen access but they should not be chasing quotas.”
To discriminate against candidates from independent schools is unfair and prejudicial. All students should have an equal chance of admission.
Not all of Rugby School students come from rich backgrounds (and even if they did, banning them from applying to Cambridge would be discrimination against the children because of the parents). Many of them have families who make great sacrifices for them to attend Rugby because their local schools are unable to provide the kind of tuition that would prepare them adequately for entrance to a top university (wherever it is located).
41 per cent of our students have assistance with their fees and nearly 30 students every year have 100 per cent of their boarding fees — plus extras — paid by our Arnold Foundation bursary programme. Most independent schools have similar programmes. Most of us also have partnership arrangements with local state schools to give access to drama and music, and to teach higher maths, classics and modern foreign languages, for example, to a level that many state schools are unable to provide.
“Rugby is certainly not a school that is full of ‘people like us'”
These partnerships extend to invitations to attend sessions for our 6th form students on understanding the Oxbridge admissions processes and how to apply. These include subject enrichment sessions and mock Oxbridge interviews and, until recently, an admissions tutor from a Cambridge or Oxford college would attend. They are now reluctant to support this initiative in fear of being seen to have a special relationship with an independent school, despite the mix of students in the room.
Meanwhile, Cambridge University charges fees from its students whatever their backgrounds, disadvantaged or not. I would suggest that this is an area more worthy of reform than arbitrating on the socio-economic backgrounds of its intake.
Rugby is certainly not a school that is full of “people like us” so we do not need to be told by Ms Byrne that by “going north” our students have the advantage of meeting people “who are not like them”. In fact, I think that our students would regard this, as I do, as not only out-dated and patronising, but self-serving institutional posturing.