How unfair is the university admissions process?

October 27, 2017 by Minerva Tutors,

Suffice to say, the answer goes far beyond just Oxbridge…

We have probably by now seen all seen the recent – and damning – statistics about Oxbridge admissions, and how significant ethnic, class and geographical factors can be. If you haven’t, you can see them here. Such is the difference in chances of receiving a place at one of Britain’s two most prestigious universities depending on your background and location, that Labour MP and former education secretary David Lammy claimed it amounts to a form of “social apartheid,” with one in three colleges failing to admit a black student in 2015.

But how much do these statistics really tell us? Is it instructive to focus merely on Oxbridge, ignoring other, also traditionally elitist institutions, in the Russell Group? How much can the universities be blamed, and how much is it a matter of a far, wider, deeper systemic social inequality, that needs addressing at government level, rather than by university admissions directives?

Cambridge English professor Priyamvada Gopal, writing in the Guardian, is clear that there is far more Britain’s two most famous universities can do to widen access beyond the white, London-and-home-counties-based, privately-educated students that are their bread and butter. She criticises their approach to ‘non-traditional attainment profiles,’ their empty concerns that such students will be unable to cope once there, and the fact that the millions of pounds they have spent on outreach, and encouraging such students to apply, has achieved relatively little in terms of numbers of successful applicants from less privileged groups. She points out that both universities must provide a better environment for a diverse student body, and that homogeneity must end. But there’s far more at play.

Oxford’s famous Radcliffe Camera library


Location, Location, Location

The first thing to look at with regards to university admissions statistics may be the geographical factors which, in terms of Oxbridge admissions, aren’t particularly happy reading if you’re from the North, where schools receive less money on average than in the South. Across the North, 55.5% of pupils attain five good GCSEs, compared with 57.3% across England, and 60.9% in London. Even in northern schools rated “outstanding” by Ofsted there is a gap of 22 percentage points between pupils on free school meals and their better-off peers.

Why are university applicants from the North – which has a greater percentage of the poorest students (those qualifying for free school meals), proportionally fewer schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and more likely to have parents who didn’t attend university themselves – less likely to attain a place at a Russell Group institution, or (even less likely) Oxford or Cambridge? Gee. Real head-scratcher that one. Could be something in the Northern air, or more likely, it could be the systematic difficulties they face in getting to higher education. Yes. Let’s go with that one for now.


It’s often suggested that these students are far less likely to be pushed by parents or teachers to apply for the most competitive universities. You can say what you like about parents who push their children, and expect a lot of them academically (if you’re reading this, you may well be one such parent), but those children are far more likely to end up at top universities – or even apply.

For teachers, working in difficult schools where getting passing grades is the priority, many may not feel comfortable encouraging pupils to apply to universities where they feel they’re unlikely to get a place, or that they may struggle once there. Rightly or wrongly, the priority may be getting a place at university rather than applying for the most prestigious destination, and fearing rejection. Unsurprisingly, the fewer people apply, the fewer will get a place. Conversely, the exact opposite is true for students given more academic opportunity growing up: they may well be encouraged to apply for the most prestigious places irrespective of merit on the basis of ‘you never know, you might get in.’ As someone who went to one of these schools, where over half the year applied to Oxbridge or Ivy League universities (and a third got places), I’m well aware of the added confidence it gives you. Indeed, the teachers at these places will usually help coach students for Oxbridge interview preparation, advise them on colleges and wouldn’t dream of telling a parent their child isn’t ‘Oxbridge material.’ Which brings us onto another important point…

London and the Home Counties disproportionately dominate Oxbridge admissions to an almost absurd degree, to the extent that living in London, Hampshire, Kent or Surrey is practically the same as having an extra A* at A Level, or Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award on your CV. However, one must consider this fact: any university in any area is likely to have more people from the surrounding areas than from further away. Even if Oxbridge were mediocre institutions, the fact that they are in the South of England means they’re likely to attract more people from that area, come what may. This doesn’t excuse the admissions chasm with the North, but perhaps mitigates it slightly, to appear less dramatic than at first glance.

But what about the Russell Group? It includes Bristol, Edinburgh, Leeds, Imperial, Durham, UCL, York, Warwick, Cardiff, Birmingham and many other top institutions – including Oxford and Cambridge. And they are geographically more widespread, but still routinely under-deliver for socially disadvantaged and ethnically diverse students. Why?


Race and ethnicity

Despite being more likely than their white British counterparts to enrol in higher education generally (Modood, 2012), British students from black Caribbean, black African, Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnic backgrounds continue to be strikingly under-represented in the UK’s most prestigious universities. However, applicants from certain ethnic backgrounds tend to have lower grades than their white counterparts, and are therefore less likely to apply to the best universities. We can criticise Oxbridge for admitting too few black students, but surely the societal factors need consideration: in 2009, 29,000 white students got the requisite grades for Oxford (AAA excluding general studies), compared to just 452 black students. And yet, despite this enormous disparity, BME (black and minority ethnicity) students with comparable grades are still less likely to be offered places than their white peers. And no one knows exactly why. Although comparable studies from schools (not universities) suggest ‘high-achieving white middle-class students tend to be viewed as ‘ideal pupils’, high-achieving Chinese students are ‘pathologized’ as too quiet and too passive, and low-achieving black and Muslim students are ‘demonized’ as loud, challenging.’ If these unacceptable assumptions are carried to the university admissions process, we can see how unfairness results.

The figures released by the Ucas university admissions clearing house show that last year black school-leavers failed to be offered places at the rates their qualifications and subject choices would suggest. Despite record numbers of applications and better predicted A-level grades and equivalent qualifications, only 70% of black applicants received offers of places, compared with 78% of white applicants and 73% of students from Asian backgrounds. According to Ucas’s predictions, 73% of black applications should have been successful.

One reason sometimes given for the under-representation of minorities at top universities is that they tend to apply for more over-subscribed, competitive courses, such as maths, law, dentistry and medicine, which lead to more definite careers. Indeed, in 2013/14, this explanation was on the website for Oxford, Cambridge, and the Russell Group. In fact, at many Russell Group universities, BME students may be over-represented in these subjects, but still at a disadvantage when compared to white applicants with equivalent grades. Conversely, BME students are proportionately less likely to apply for subjects in the arts and humanities, and may be slightly more likely to gain a place than white students with equivalent grades. However, even when taking this discrepancy into account, BME students are still less likely overall than their white counterparts with equivalent grades to gain a place at Oxford, Cambridge and Russell Group universities. It has been suggested that this could be admissions departments trying to keep courses more ‘representative’ of wider society – which would more or less amount to systematic discrimination, and may well be illegal. If white students are applying in disproportionately smaller numbers than BME students to the most competitive subjects, why should they be rewarded simply for the fact that there’s more white people in wider British society?

If this is the case, it’s clearly a very imperfect system, where in neither case are students (of any ethnicity) being rewarded strictly for their academic achievement or potential. Instead, the ethnicity of other applicants can be a deciding factor in one’s application process, which is clearly also absurd. This paper provides a deeply detailed breakdown of the issues relating to inequality in ethnicity for Russell Group admissions.

Interestingly, members of Cambridge University’s Afro-Caribbean Society didn’t condemn the university for its low admission rates of black students, instead criticising the negative messaging around the statistics. They believe a positive focus on empowerment, and looking at the success stories will have far greater success in increasing numbers of BME applicants, as opposed to simply bashing the university for its existing admissions rates.

Members of CUASC outside St. John’s College

But one thing is for certain – as the statistics for Russell Group admissions in recent years show, there has been genuine improvement in recent years in the number and rate of ethnically diverse students attending top universities – but the attainment gap at A Level (most drastically for black students and students on free school meals) is what needs most attention. And that happens at school, and how well a school prepares you for university applications is crucial.


Independent schools  

Only 7% of students in the UK went to private schools; 47% of the people at top universities did. Which seems a little unfair, to say the least, as such schools are not exactly famed as bastions of egalitarianism and equality. Can we blame the universities for this? The Russell Group sets aside roughly £40 million a year for ‘widening access’ to students from less privileged backgrounds (plus significantly more for financial support once there) – but can that really break the stranglehold of independent school applicants on top institutions? Progress has been slow – even negative – for economically disadvantaged applicants, while some ethnic groups have not progressed as hoped or anticipated. Indeed, in the last six years (of Tory government), as spending on widening access has increased across the board, the statistics of state school students attending some Russell Group universities has actually gone down. How?


Some universities have done better than others at accepting students from lower social groups – but as the totals show, the Russell Group is far behind the rest of the country’s universities.


Firstly, it seems this money is being spent inefficiently, to say the least – indeed, no one knows the best way to spend it. But you can see a variety of the ways that Russell Group universities – including Liverpool, Oxford, Manchester, LSE and UCL – spend the money here. One way suggested has been to spend it on tutoring pupils with high potential but little access to the best teaching, to help them get the grades required for the top universities. But it would take a lot, lot more than the current sums available  year to identify every such pupil, coach them in every required subject, and hope to get them up to the standard of peers who have had better opportunities at school (as well as tutors, quite possibly) for several years up until that point.  

The proportion of the student intake of Russell Group universities coming from poor backgrounds has gone up from 19.5% in 2004/5 to 20.8% in 2014/5. Over that time, non-Russell Group universities saw the proportion of their students coming from poor backgrounds increase much more significantly, from 32.5% to 37.5% The statistics also show that 77.2% of undergraduates are from state schools, compared to 74% in 2004/5.  However, the figures show pupils from private schools are still two and a half times more likely to enter a leading university than their state school colleagues.

Over half of students who started a degree last year were the first in their family to go to university, new figures have revealed. For the first time, the number of students whose parents did not go to university matched those from wealthier academic backgrounds, according to data supplied by Ucas. It comes five years after the Government  lifted the cap on how many students could enrol at universities. However, critics point out that too many students were attending low-performing universities which charge “outrageous” fees but fail to improve social mobility. While more students from these backgrounds are entering higher education, the number studying top subjects such as medicine, maths and the sciences, or attending Russell Group universities, is disproportionately low, making it seemingly a false positive statistic: these students will rack up the debts of going to university, then emerge into a job market saturated with graduates, where their degree is unlikely to be enough to guarantee a well-paid job. Hence research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that 77% of graduates will never repay their student loans.

The fact that independent schools are that much better equipped to send pupils to better universities is crucial, in light of the 47% statistic (and more of these schools are – shock – around London and the Home Counties). The most recent statistics show that more Oxbridge offers were made to Eton than to students on free school meals. A student from such a place will get help on everything from personal statements and course choices to interview preparation, as far perhaps even which Oxford don they’ll get on best with. In the recent case of Eton, economics pupils even knew some A Level questions before the exam. A Level playing field? Ha. So why should we feign surprise when more of them go to Oxbridge and the Russell Group? We shouldn’t.

Eton – not a level playing field

At the same time, state schools are enduring their worst crisis in decades. Real terms spending has been cut drastically, teachers are desperately underpaid and leaving the profession in droves (not to mention teacher shortages in key subject areas), schools are in disrepair, understaffed, being forced to cut subjects and extra-curricular activities, being forced to ask parents for money, while all the while staff fear and despise the next dreaded Ofsted inspection. And on top of that, they have to try and send students to the best universities, encouraging them to compete against the comparatively few who have had every advantage an independent school affords? Sounds like a lot to ask.

And we can’t exactly blame universities for that. They also don’t have the money or resources to plug the enormous gaps in British state education. And it isn’t their job to do so. It is the government’s. It’s all well and good politicians talking about ‘social mobility,’ ‘equal opportunity’ and ‘a country that works for everyone’, but consistently cutting primary and secondary education spending, while raising university tuition fees to make them less accessible for the poorest in society (fees, of course, charged by every single RG university, and Oxbridge, making less prestigious destinations more affordable), hardly scream ‘social mobility.’ And this disparity is all the more stark when you consider the absurd proportion of our current cabinet who went to Oxbridge, or Russell Group universities. And while the admissions figures have never been great for BME or working class students, progress has been made since the year 2000 (though never close to reaching a point of equality). Any progress, however slow, should be celebrated in an admissions process which has unfairness so deeply ingrained – and the current prospects for BME students appear, even though marginally behind white students, better than ever.

It seems, however, that in the past six years, progress for the poorest students has gone backwards. And as we stagger towards a Brexit that promises more certainty for the most vulnerable in society than anyone else, that is serious cause for concern.


Further reading:


Oxbridge bashing is an empty ritual if we ignore further inequities – Guardian

Oxbridge uncovered: More elitist than we thought – BBC

Elite universities ‘going backwards’ on widening access – Times Higher Education

Exploring Ethnic Inequalities in Admission to Russell Group Universities – SAGE/Durham University

Participation of BME students at Russell Group Universities – Russell Group


By David Bard


David is a Minerva Pro Tutor who specialises in humanities subjects at A Level and is a trained expert in the 7 + and 11 + exams. Outside of tutoring, David writes blogs about everything that’s trending in education.

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