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Lord Adonis calls for new Cambridge and Oxford colleges for state school students only


By Alex Spencer


Labour peer Andrew Adonis. Picture: Vikki Lince
Labour peer Andrew Adonis. Picture: Vikki Lince

Lord Adonis has called for the University of Cambridge to open new colleges exclusively for state school students.

And he warns that unless they have a better proposal to increase access dramatically to student places for the less wealthy, the university “will be defending social elitism for another generation”.

In a proposal published today (Wednesday), he says access programmes at Oxbridge have not been successful and that a bold new plan to get more state school students into Oxford and Cambridge is needed.

“I think we need to do something bold and effective on access because there’s a fundamental problem where the majority of state schools send almost no one to Cambridge,” he said.

Andrew Adonis, a former minister of state for education, cites the Sutton Trust’s figures which show that 3,000 state schools in Britain send almost no students to Cambridge and that most Cambridge places are taken by pupils from just eight top schools, including £40,000-a-year Eton College.

Speaking to the Cambridge Independent, he said: “I hope a debate will now start in Cambridge about taking this idea forward because unless there is a better proposal, Cambridge will be defending social elitism for another generation.”

He added: “I think a bold initiative of this kind could bring about a radical change instead of an incremental change. There’s a massive social imperative to give opportunities to the brightest students who go to schools that don’t have any tradition of sending people to Cambridge, which is unfortunately the great majority of schools in the country.”

Countering arguments that the university has been trying to improve access for state students, he said the changes were not happening quickly enough: “They say they take account of the greater advantages public schools have but they still give a very large proportion of their places to students from major public schools and more affluent state schools. They do it because those students perform extremely highly in their A-levels.”

He is not in favour of state school quotas because that could impact on the autonomy of the institutions.

“What I’m proposing is the university should itself set as an objective the creation of an additional block of places specifically over and above the existing, intended to promote access to suitably qualified teenagers from the 3,000 schools and colleges across Britain that currently send virtually no one to Cambridge. It’s an idea whose time has come.”

However, a spokesperson from the university dismissed the proposal: “Aside from the cost implications, there are other reasons why establishing a new college for under-represented students wouldn’t be practical. The debate is about widening participation and providing greater inclusion.

“Our biggest problem at Cambridge is convincing people they should apply and making it clear to them that they are welcome here. What message about inclusivity would be sent out by setting up a new college for this purpose? We have no plans to significantly increase undergraduate numbers because the tuition fee only covers half the cost of an undergraduate degree.”

Lord Adonis said this was a “deeply complacent and unsatisfactory response”, adding: “ It’s a statement by the university that they are going to do nothing. I don’t think that will be satisfactory over the next decade to adopt that position. It is a head in the sand position.”

The Old Schools at the University of Cambridge (6457664)
The Old Schools at the University of Cambridge (6457664)

According to the Sutton Trust, in 2015-17, 18 per cent of those taking A-levels were at private school and 34 per cent of Oxbridge applications were from private school students. Some 42 per cent of Oxbridge places went to private school pupils.

The principal of Netherhall School, Chris Tooley, who was educated at a comprehensive school before studying at Cambridge, told the Cambridge Independent he would not support Lord Adonis’s plan, but would welcome a change in the process.

“I have no problem with more places being made available at Cambridge and Oxford and for them to set up new colleges, but if it is only for state school students it will become stigmatised as the ‘back door’ Cambridge college.”

He added that the current admissions system for Cambridge was not a level playing field, saying: “If you have attended a £40,000-per-year school, such as Eton, you get a very different educational provision than a state school student in Cambridge whose funding would amount to £3,900 for their education per year.

“You have a tenfold difference in terms of the investment given to that child. And yet you are expecting exactly the same outcomes? I would prefer a quota of state school children and a reflection in the offers given to students.”

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