After the grades of thousands of disadvantaged students in England were slashed by an opaque and potentially unlawful algorithm, Oxford and Cambridge became the first universities to rub salt into the wound. The majority of Oxbridge colleges have rejected a government call to hold open places for students appealing their grades – who may instead have to defer for a year if colleges ‘fill up’. Universities committed to equality must honour their offer, argues Nadine Batchelor-Hunt.
I’m a working-class former Cambridge student. I spent my childhood on a council estate and went to an average comprehensive school. As I completed my GCSEs, my mum had to support our family of four on her £19k-a-year salary after her husband was diagnosed with cancer and my grandmother was taken gravely ill. I also suffered from serious, untreated mental health issues which seriously impacted my mock exams. During my last year of A-Levels, I barely went to classes as I was too unwell to attend school. Through exams I was able to demonstrate my academic ability – not my recorded progress during the year, which was chequered with crises and struggles. And I’d been lucky to get into a grammar school for sixth form, where I had more support.
I know how hard it is to study in difficult circumstances, albeit nowhere near as disruptive or traumatic as what many young people have gone through during this pandemic. Had I gone through the algorithm students went through today, I’m confident would not have secured my offer. That is why I’m imploring Oxford, Cambridge, and all universities, to honour their offers to working class and minority ethnicity students. Not only has the algorithm unfairly impacted the poorest students, it has actively inflated the grades of privately educated ones. It’s entrenching the deep inequality in contemporary Britain.
Top universities have a chronic issue when it comes to the overrepresentation of privately educated students. When I was a student at Cambridge, around 40% of students were privately educated, despite the fact that only 7%of the population is. Not only that, but the proportion of non-privately educated students at Cambridge is inflated by those who went to state grammar schools or comprehensive schools in incredibly affluent areas. It was the “postcode lottery” you are hearing so much about. That meant students who are Black, working class, or both, are incredibly rare. Pre-Covid-19, Black students were less likely to get accepted than white students at Cambridge – even if they had the grades. What’s happening now can only make matters worse.
Oxbridge’s position is not merely an inconvenience for working class students that have missed their offers. One young student, who had an offer to study at Cambridge, told me how she had hoped to be the first person in her first-generation Somali family to attend university. “I’m not even worried about my Cambridge offer,” she told me, after she got downgraded. “It’s the prospect of being forced to take a gap year … my mum was going to rent out my room when I moved out to cover rent.”
It’s vital that universities make greater use of contextual admissions for students who have narrowly missed out on their grades.
Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust
Meanwhile, teachers have told me how some of their students struggled to access the internet while schools were closed, nor did they have a quiet place to study due to cramped housing. I’ve heard stories of how minority ethnicity and working class students (whose parents are more likely to be key frontline workers) have lost family members amid the pandemic. Stories about young people whose first language was not English, and the challenges they faced studying outside the classroom. Many of these kids have had parents that lost their jobs. Seeing these students missing offers, while remembering how friends at university who went to Westminster School claimed half their year were accepted into Oxbridge, breaks my heart.
As Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of education equality charity the Sutton Trust, said: “It’s vital that universities make greater use of contextual admissions for students who have narrowly missed out on their grades. They must recognise that students’ grades have been awarded in the most extraordinary of circumstances.”
I am confident that colleges, like my former Jesus College, Cambridge, have the resources and capacity to support these disadvantaged students. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small price for universities to pay, but will be life changing for these young people.
So, I ask universities: honour your offer. We’re suffering the worst recession of any major economy, and have a generation of kids being robbed of their futures. Do the right thing, don’t be complicit in the socio-economic divide worsening across our country.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of EachOther.