Oxbridge becoming less diverse as richest gain 80% of offers

Oxford and Cambridge going backwards in drive to recruit students from poorer backgrounds and areas, data shows

Oxford and Cambridge universities have gone backwards on the socio-economic diversity of their student bodies, with more than four in five students coming from the most privileged groups, a Guardian analysis has found.

Data released to the MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, under the Freedom of Information Act shows that 82% of offers from Oxford and 81% from Cambridge went to students from the top two socio-economic groups in 2015, up from 79% at both universities five years earlier.

Lammy, who has campaigned for greater ethnic and socio-economic diversity at Oxbridge, said he was appalled that the universities were moving backwards on socio-economic background measurements. “This data clearly shows that a privileged background is still the key to getting through the Oxbridge admissions process,” he said.

The data shows huge regional disparities in offers, with some parts of England and Wales failing to secure a single place for years while students in London and the south-east received almost half of all offers.

Despite the two universities’ extensive efforts to increase the diversity of their intake, new research shows there are still swaths of the country with low rates of application and disproportionately fewer offers.


Lammy criticised the regional divide, in which Wales, the former industrial heartlands of north-east England and the Midlands are particularly poorly represented.

Not a single applicant in Blaenau Gwent in south Wales, Sandwell in the West Midlands, Rochdale in Greater Manchester or Knowsley on Merseyside received an offer from Cambridge in the five years to 2015. Oxford fared slightly better with two offers to Blaenau Gwent students, 14 to Knowsley, 31 to Rochdale and 25 to Sandwell where 152 students applied, amounting to a 16% offer rate which is substantially lower than other areas.

Simon Hackett, the cabinet member for children’s services at Sandwell council, said: “We are very disappointed we haven’t seen a more proactive approach by the universities in areas like Sandwell. Some years ago we asked for this, but have seen no improvement in universities recruiting our students.”

Cambridge said its figures for 2017 showed a marked improvement on previous years, with the highest proportion of state-educated students in 35 years and a significant increase in the proportion of students coming from communities that were the hardest to reach.

Of the latest intake, more than 63% of UK students come from state schools and colleges, up from 62.5% last year. Using a measure of postcodes with the lowest rates of participation in higher education, Cambridge said the proportion of successful applicants increased from 3.3% in 2016 to 4.5% in 2017.


Hertfordshire and Surrey each received more than 1,500 Oxbridge offers over five years, while Halton in Cheshire, north-east Lincolnshire, Barnsley, Hartlepool, and Middlesbrough managed just 70 offers between them during the same period.

Students at independent schools still secure a disproportionately high number of offers. An average of 43% of offers from Oxford and 37% from Cambridge were made to privately educated students between 2010 and 2015, while just 7% of children overall are educated in private schools.

Lammy described the continuing regional divide in Oxbridge offers as shocking. “At a time when London and the south-east are more dominant than at any other point in our history, Oxbridge are failing to live up to their responsibilities as national universities.”

A spokesperson for Oxford said that the university “absolutely take on board Mr Lammy’s comments, and we realise there are big geographical disparities in the numbers and proportions of students coming to Oxford.”

Observing that the areas sending fewest students to Oxford tend to be the most disadvantaged, the spokesperson said: “Rectifying this is going to be a long journey that requires huge, joined-up effort across society – including from leading universities like Oxford – to address serious inequalities.”

The spokesperson added that the university is seeing progress and pointed out that “this year, for the first time, disadvantaged students were more likely to get an offer than their more advantaged peers”.

The north-east secured just 3% of all Cambridge offers in 2015, a figure which remained unchanged over five years despite increasing ministerial pressure on universities to access hard-to-reach areas. Oxford offers climbed one percentage point from 2% to 3% between 2014 and 2015, with the offer rate slightly exceeding rates of application.

Middlesbrough, where 101 students applied to Oxbridge, secured just 11 places in five years.

Carolyn Yule, the director of A-levels at Middlesbrough College, said that not one of her Oxbridge applicants had been successful in her three years in the job. “One of the students we did a lot of work with, he wanted to read mathematics and he was absolutely fantastic,” she said. “He got an interview and could not have done any more, but he didn’t get in. We didn’t really get a lot of feedback from them. We don’t even feel we know why our students don’t get in.”

The proportion of Oxford offers in the east Midlands fell slightly from 5% in 2012 to 4% in 2015, slightly lower than Cambridge’s 6%. The West Midlands secured 6% of Oxbridge places.

London secured 23% of all Cambridge offers and 24% of Oxford’s in 2015, and students in the south-east were awarded 24% of places at Oxford and 22% at Cambridge.

Given the huge regional disparities, Lammy questioned why taxpayers across the country should be expected to contribute to the two universities. “Oxbridge take over £800m a year from the taxpayer, paid for by people in every city, town and village.

“Whole swaths of the country, especially our seaside towns and the ‘left behind’ former industrial heartlands across the north and the Midlands are basically invisible. If Oxbridge can’t improve, then there is no reason why the taxpayer should continue to give them so much money.”

The dearth of offers is particularly severe in Wales. According to the Guardian’s analysis of the new data, just 2% of all offers from Cambridge and 3% from Oxford were made to students in Wales in 2015. Though applications from Wales remain low, Welsh applicants receive disproportionately fewer offers compared with other UK applicants, despite achieving similar GCSE and A-level grades.

Just four students on Anglesey applied to Oxford in 2015, none of whom were successful. Of the total of 29 who applied between 2010 and 2015, just one was successful, in 2010, a 3% success rate.

Figures for Blaenau Gwent are similarly poor. Out of 24 applications over the same five-year period, just two students were successful, one in 2011 and one in 2014. In Merthyr Tydfil, 31 students applied, of whom just two received offers, a 6% offer rate.

In Gwynedd, just five of the 60 students who applied to Oxford were offered places, a slightly higher success rate of 8%, but still far short of the 32% offer rate for students applying from Islington, in north London.

The minister for lifelong learning in Wales, Alun Davies, said: “Significant progress has been made in recent years closing the attainment gap among our pupils, but we recognise that, through working with schools and universities, we need to do more to push our most able students to reach their full potential.”

The Welsh government set up the Seren network in 2015 to identify the highest achieving students in Wales at GCSE in order to work with them through sixth form to support applications to the best universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, as well as top overseas institutions.

Organisers said the scheme was starting to bear fruit, with two students winning places at Yale and one at Harvard this year, but that the full impact of the initiative would not be felt until 2018-19 when students will have received specialist advice and guidance through two full academic years.


Sally Weale, Richard Adams and Helena Bengtsson

The GuardianTramp

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