Beginning this summer, applicants who were narrowly rejected following an interview for an undergraduate course will be able to apply for a second time after receiving their final A-level results. This is a practice known as adjustment, operated by UCAS and carried out by many other UK universities, and it enables students who achieve higher A-level grades than expected to apply for consideration by another university with higher entry requirements than their original first-place choice. The system operated by the University of Cambridge, however, will offer these places only to students from underrepresented backgrounds.
The new scheme will offer up to 100 of the more than 14,000 unsuccessful Cambridge applicants the opportunity to study at the university each year.
Cambridge has announced this as part of its efforts to increase diversity and widen participation from underrepresented backgrounds. Research is repeatedly showing us how universities, and particularly those belonging to the prestigious Russell Group, of which Newcastle is a member, fail to represent the demographics of the British population. Are these measures really enough?
It was recently reported by the National Education Opportunities Network that white working-class students comprise of less than 5% of the student population at over half of England’s universities. Similar inequalities are seen when looking at the ethnic groups of students; in the UK, black students consistently graduate with lower degree classifications than their white peers regardless of their prior educational attainment. Evidently, when students from underrepresented groups do study at a university here, they face different barriers to success in their degree programmes than students from privileged groups.
Whilst the recent announcement of adjustment measures is a positive step, Cambridge clearly needs to take more radical structural measures to increase the diversity of its students and allow them to flourish once at Cambridge. By ridding itself of the stereotype that it is dominated by upper-class white kids with a trust fund and a second house in Monaco, Cambridge can begin to reap the benefits that a diverse student population brings. This includes ensuring that Cambridge colleges provide affordable accommodation, financial and structural support for student carers and parents, and ultimately a new and more embracing attitude towards students from minority groups. Celebrating diversity would reduce the instances of regressive behaviour such as the infamous Cambridge student Ronald Coyne, who attracted global media attention in February 2017 when his friends filmed him setting a £20 note alight in front of a homeless man.
The aforementioned inequality however covers more than just university students; research shows that academia also fails to accurately represent the demographic mix of the British population. A recent BBC Freedom of Information Request to 22 Russell Group universities showed that 86% of their academic staff are white, and furthermore revealed a significant pay gap between academics from different ethnic groups, with the average salary being £52,000 for white academics compared to just £38,000 for black academics. The combination of racial and gender inequalities means that black females are incredibly underrepresented in academia, with shocking statistics collected by Advance HE showing that only 25 of 19,000 professors working at various universities in the academic year 2016/17 were black women. These include Olivette Otele, announced as the UK’s first black female history professor, who hopes she’s not ‘the only one’ for long.
Whilst I applaud Cambridge for finally recognising the need to encourage diversity and the new perspectives that it brings, I am not sure whether giving second chances to students from underrepresented backgrounds is the best way to do this. This suggests that something about these students is inferior, and sets this group of students aside. This is not promoting their integration with the rest of the student population, but is rather segregating and separating them. To encourage diversity, not just at the University of Cambridge but across UK higher education institutions as a whole, structural changes are needed.
Universities need to think long and hard about what prevents students from underrepresented groups from applying to them in the first place. To enable students to succeed academically regardless of background, change needs to take place before students go to university. Change needs to be implemented in schools too, otherwise students simply won’t have the opportunity to apply for university education in the first place.
Diversity can teach us a lot. Without it, our education is compromised and our opportunities are limited.
Up to 100 places are to be made available under the new scheme, which forms part of the University’s attempts to increase the diversity of their student population. In addition to exam results, admissions tutors will be taking into account the percentage of students who attend university in the applicant’s local area, as well as family circumstances. Whilst widening access to students from diverse backgrounds is a commendable and certainly necessary aim, this measure comes across as tokenistic and as an excuse for Cambridge to side-step more significant social, cultural, and economic barriers preventing students from poorer backgrounds being accepted to the University.
The problematic nature of this move lies in the suggestion that students from poor areas are not being accepted to Cambridge because their grades are not good enough. Dr Sam Lucy, director of admissions at Cambridge, explained the reasoning behind the decision was that students may not be ‘demonstrating their full academic potential’ by the interview stage of the application process, which begins only a month into the academic year for most A-level students. As all schools must submit applications for the same deadline, this is a problem that affects all students, so why not include all students in the measure?
Many UK universities already participate in the UCAS system of adjustment whereby any student who exceeds their predicted grades on results day can refer themselves to be reconsidered, so it seems unnecessary (and quite problematic) for Cambridge to single out economically-disadvantaged students as the only ones who may not be reaching their full potential before the end of the academic year.
Focusing on the potential inaccuracy of predicted grades is a distinctly underwhelming attempt to tackle the lack of diversity at Cambridge that avoids confronting the huge social, cultural, and economic factors at play which prevent disadvantaged students from applying and being successful. Many university applicants from poorer backgrounds are academically-talented and have excellent predicted grades that meet Cambridge’s requirements, so what is preventing them from applying and/or being accepted?
A potential factor could be that academically-talented students from poorer backgrounds may not have access to the coaching that some more privileged students receive to specifically prepare them for interviews and admission tests at Oxbridge. Furthermore, Cambridge’s reputation for being dominated by the white and wealthy may put some students off applying in the first place, due to feelings of social or cultural unbelonging. Despite the various financial aids for disadvantaged students offered by the University’s widening participation scheme, some students may also feel that studying and living in Cambridge is not financially viable for them.
Despite statistics released in 2017 showing a state-school intake of 64.1% at Cambridge, there are still huge disparities in the ratios of state, independent, and private school-educated students across the colleges. Furthermore, this figure does not come close to the UK-wide percentage, 90%, of university students hailing from state schools.
Cambridge must do far more than offering 100 adjustment places to make their institution more accessible to disadvantaged students.