At the start of each calendar year, schools are eager to impress by publishing beaming pictures of Oxbridge “successes”. We should be mindful of the fact that an offer, from either of these excellent universities, is a wonderful achievement in itself, but translating that offer into a place is a different matter. Regardless of that, we should also question why we continue to be obsessed with Oxbridge and whether or not a more nuanced understanding of university access should be adopted and led by independent schools.
People may wonder whether this position is a response to the reduction in offers to students at independent schools, as widely reported in the press? True, independent schools do appear to have achieved fewer offers this year. The reasons for this are complex enough not to be brushed over and despite the impact of exam results in 2020 playing a significant and unique part, the trend is likely to continue.
Nevertheless, the reasons why independent schools are receiving fewer offers is not what I intend to unpack, here. Rather, I wish to explore whether an Oxbridge offer really should be seen as the gold standard of success that it traditionally has been and whether or not we should be leading our students and their families towards a broader understanding.
“Students who choose not to apply are making a positive decision, supported by their school or college, to focus elsewhere.”
The light shone on these world-leading institutions casts an unfair shadow on others. It is fair to say that, with over 800 years of history, 42 Prime-Ministers, hundreds of Nobel Prize-winners and a reputation for excellent tuition and research, Oxford and Cambridge can justify their place in the collective national consciousness as being truly outstanding. And they are. A talented student who passionately wishes to study their academic discipline of choice in a tutorial environment with the finest minds in the field, should look no further. If, in addition to that, the history, traditions and college environment are attractive to them, then they may have found a perfect fit. That fit might not be right for everyone, of course.
Nevertheless, a significant number of students choose not to apply there. These students are making a positive decision, supported by their school or college, to focus elsewhere.
Four UK universities feature in the top ten of the QS Top Universities world-rankings and in total, eighteen UK universities make it into the QS top-100. To be clear, these are global rankings. Not a bad haul for an island that is smaller than eleven US states.
“If you take student satisfaction seriously, then St. Andrews comes out on top.”
These global rankings are interesting for the increasing number of students looking to apply from the UK to overseas universities. Many find that access to the Ivy League, which dominates the QS world rankings, is not as complicated as it once was and that scholarships are accessible. The Fulbright Commission cites that 600 US universities offer scholarships of $20,000 or more and 250 of them offer 100 per cent or “full ride” scholarships.
Roughly 15 per cent of students from my own college accept offers outside of the UK and the total number of students who take up a place at a QS top-100 institution is around 80 per cent of the cohort – a statistic we consider to be much more important than the number who accept offers from two universities.
There are many positive reasons for students to look beyond Oxbridge when applying within the UK. If student satisfaction is a measure that you take seriously, then St. Andrews (ranked 3rd overall in the UK, The Complete University Guide), comes out on top. In 2019 Oxford and Cambridge were languishing behind in 31st and 34th place, respectively. If research quality is a priority, then Imperial and The LSE top the table, followed by Oxford and Cambridge in quick succession before Cardiff makes its mark. Perhaps more startling is that when ranked by graduate prospects, Cambridge only manages 7th place and Oxford is way back in 22nd.
“The role of the school or college is to assist the candidate to find the right course, at the right university.”
Individual students, selecting individual courses, may be mindful of the fact that subject areas are also ranked by various criteria. A young physicist, dreaming of taking her degree from the same institution as Isaac Newton but mindful of her graduate prospects may be advised to look at Birmingham (1st position for Physics graduate prospects) over Cambridge (12th).
League tables can be as much of a hindrance as a help, so perhaps we should look closer at the content of individual degree courses, the location and culture of the university and the type of tuition they offer, when assisting our students in finding the right fit. A talented medic may pass on the idea of an Oxbridge application in favour of other universities where the course is more suitable to their interests than a more research-based course. Similarly, a musician, a student of English literature or an historian may do their research and find that the course content, tutors or location of other universities may provide a more suitable fit for three years of study.
What matters is that schools and colleges celebrate the success of all students. The role of the school or college is to assist the candidate to find the right course, at the right university – a course which stretches and extends the skills, talents and interests of the student in a location where they will thrive. This may, for many, be Oxford or Cambridge, but for many equally capable candidates, it may not be. It is time to change the narrative.