Oxbridge admissions: what the numbers actually say

It’s almost become a political cliché to quote the (apparently) (appallingly) (allegedly) [delete to taste] low number of black students being accepted to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. But for all the widespread quoting of those numbers, there is very little done usually to put the numbers in context.

So here’s a simple chart that compares the actual admission figures for black students with what they would be if if the proportion of acceptances who are black was the same as the proportion of people who take GCSEs who are black or if it was the same as the proportion of people who get three As at A-level and are black:

Oxbridge graph

As you can see, the actual number of black students accepted to Oxford and Cambridge is – at 50 – lower than the number it would be if those universities were accepting the same proportion of black students as there are amongst those who get 3As at A-level.

That gap – between 50 and 65 – is, however, dwarfed by the much larger gap when you look instead at the proportion of people taking GCSEs who are black. If Oxbridge acceptances had the same proportion of blacks as GCSE exam sitters, there would be 219 acceptances each year, not 50.

The conclusion? Oxford and Cambridge are right to push back at politicians and point out how the under-performing of black students in the educational system pre-18 means they have a very lopsided pool of people to pick their students from.

But some of the more enthusiastic defenders of Oxbridge’s record do look rather complacent and unwilling to face up to their own responsibilities given that if the two universities were accepting the same proportion of blacks as there are amongst those who get 3 As, the would be take 30% more each year (65 rather than 50).

Note on sources: These figures are based on the standard census definition for “black”. GCSE figures are for England only; A level figures for the UK. Exam results and Cambridge entrance figures for the last three years. Oxford entrance figures for the last year. Thanks to both the universities for supplying me with the data.

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29 Comments

  • Nonconformistradical 18th Apr '11 - 10:28am

    “Oxbridge doesn’t just want ’3 As’ – they want 3 As in difficult mind stretching subjects (Physics, Chemistry, Maths, etc. instead of Media Studies, Film Studies, etc.); so what are the numbers for them? Much fewer, I think.”

    Having just looked at the lists of undergraduate courses on both Cambridge and Oxford websites – I don’t find this surprising. Without having delved deeply into individual course requirements – it seems obvious that A-levels which are related to the desired course field should and would be the criteria (plus I note the use of additions testing for some courses). I can’t visualise situations in which students who have opted for ‘easy’ A-levels would have much chance.of gaining entry to an Oxbridge course.

    Students who have been allowed to get away with the idea that ‘easy’ A-levels are a safe passport to higher education and plenty have in my view been conned.

  • This is useful, but it lacks a crucial piece of data, which may not be available in the public domain: what proportion of black students predicted three As at A-level actually apply to Oxbridge in the first place? There is anecdotal evidence of bright students not applying because they get the impression that Oxbridge is ‘not for them’ socially, if they are working class, black, Muslim etc etc. The universities themselves try to counter this with their access work, but far more influential are the myths perpetuated by much of the press and, at times, by politicians. In short, this data in itself cannot be taken as evidence that the applications process at Oxbridge is skewed against black students. The over-riding problem remains the school system.

  • I agree with Chris Squire, the point of your last (non-italicized) paragraph is not backed up by the figures. Maybe several years’ worth of data could be amalgamated to give a better picture? Also agree with Box, the number of applicants is really crucial information.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Apr '11 - 12:56pm

    I worked for many years as the admissions tutor for my university department, and from this I can say that the difference in choice of subjects taken at A-level is a MAJOR factor here. In my academic subject, by far the most useful A-level is Mathematics, and after that what was most useful was an abstract reading/writing subject. It’s not necessarily that the material developed and assessed by these A-levels is used directly, it’s more that they develop and assess the sort of abstract skills which are required for serious academic study. Less abstract A-levels, such as Information Technology and Business Studies might seem to be more relevant, but experience showed those who came in with that sort of A-level generally did very badly in the degree. I find almost universally, admissions tutors for other subjects say the same.

    In my case, I was not in the fortunate position of Oxbridge admissions tutors who have so many AAA grade applicants that they can turn many of them down without even thinking. Quite the contrary, most years in August I was pulling my hair out in desperation at how I was going to fill all the places I had to fill. A general rule was that I would snap up without question anyone who had a C in A-level Maths, but if someone had just ICT, Business Studies and some other “vocational” subject, I’d be looking for grade A. That was not through snobbery, it was just from practical experience that the applicant with C in A-level Maths had a better chance of passing the degree than the applicant with higher grades in less abstract subjects.

    In general, black applicants and applicants from working class backgrounds were far more likely to have the less useful A levels than white applicants from high social class backgrounds. I suspect that higher up the university pecking order where they can afford to be a bit more picky this would be even more of a factor.

    In many cases where I had what looked like a good applicant who had a poor choice of A-level subject, I actually asked “Why did you not do A-level Maths?” and the answer was inevitably “Because I did not realise it was needed”. That is, students from these backgrounds genuinely supposed the more “vocational” A-levels would be the most useful, and often dismissed subjects such as mathematics as “irrelevant”. In some cases, when I spoke to teachers about this, they realised it was a problem and told me they found it impossible to get the message across to 16 year olds when they chose their A-level subjects. In other cases, the teachers themselves were surprised to find that actually what they thought of as useful “vocational” A-levels actually were of little use in the subject area they were supposed to be “vocational” in.

    One problem with the “vocational” A-levels is that they are too much oriented around memorisation and regurgitation, which is useless when it comes to serious academic study. In my experience, confusing memorising with learning is the biggest cause of failure in university degrees apart from laziness. Another problem is that they are often taught by people who have only themselves had brief training in the subject. A third problem is that they are often appallingly out-of-date. I looked at the syllabus for A-level Computing from one of the big exam boards a few months ago, and much of it took an approach which was considered outdated when I took my degree in Computer Science thirty years ago.

    The other issue is related to this, which is that black university applicants tend to go for the more vocational degree subjects, in particular the high prestige ones of Medicine and Law. These are the more difficult to get into because of the high number of applicants for the limited number of places. It will often be the case, for example, that AAA at A-level is required to get a place in Medicine, whereas another science subject at the same university would give you a place with CCC. It always annoyed me that 6th-formers with good science A-levels were almost always pushed into Medicine, leaving other science and engineering subjects to scrabble for the also-rans on A-level grades.

  • The %s in the x axis labels are a bit confusing

  • gramsci's eyes 18th Apr '11 - 1:24pm

    Just to add confusion. The application process at Oxbridge requires admission by your college (adding college fees to university fees) .Is the rate of ethnic minorities or Eton students the same at Peterhouse as it is at Churchill?

    Also stop assuming the race is the defining variable ( a dangerous road for example in mental health research). Undoubtedly cultural norms play a role (sometimes for/sometimes against) , but so does class and poverty. If you look at the educational achievements of poor whites from the same areas, the educational results are the same.

  • organic cheeseboard 18th Apr '11 - 1:48pm

    students from these backgrounds genuinely supposed the more “vocational” A-levels would be the most useful, and often dismissed subjects such as mathematics as “irrelevant”. In some cases, when I spoke to teachers about this, they realised it was a problem and told me they found it impossible to get the message across to 16 year olds when they chose their A-level subjects

    I think this is a real problem. Unless you limit students to ‘traditiona’ subjects it is nigh on impossible to explain to them that a choice of business studies will limit their potential access to somewhere like Oxford.

    Also – just from the exampels in the press in recent weeks as well as my experience at open days – it looks like an awful lot of students applying to Oxford are committing the worst mistake possible – applying to other universities for different degree programmes. Thus one interviewee in the guardian had clearly applied for English at Oxford but Politics and English at Liverpool.

    nothing says ‘uncomitted to the subject’ like applying for other subjects…

  • “But some of the more enthusiastic defenders of Oxbridge’s record do look rather complacent and unwilling to face up to their own responsibilities given that if the two universities were accepting the same proportion of blacks as there are amongst those who get 3 As, the would be take 30% more each year (65 rather than 50).”

    Well, i see Box has asked the first question I would: “what proportion of black students predicted three As at A-level actually apply to Oxbridge in the first place?”

    You can only “prove” discrimination if the proportion accepted is consistently lower than the proportion who applied. And even then, the numbers are so low as to be statistically invalid – you can’t infer anything from a sample of 50.

  • Gramsci, domestic students don’t pay the college fee, it’s only an issue for international students.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Apr '11 - 3:23pm

    You can only “prove” discrimination if the proportion accepted is consistently lower than the proportion who applied.

    Not quite. If the perception exists (correctly or otherwise) that the process is discriminatory against black applicants, that could reduce the likelihood of black people unless they feel they are particularly strong candidates, i.e have a decent chance of overcoming the discrimination. If both those premises were true, you would expect the proportion of black applicants who succeed to be significantly higher than the equivalent figure for white applicants if the process were not in fact discriminatory. Devil of a job to design the research methodology that would be necessary to test that hypothesis, though.

    Also:

    And even then, the numbers are so low as to be statistically invalid – you can’t infer anything from a sample of 50.

    A misunderstanding there. The sample isn’t 50: the sample is (depending on what you’re looking at) either the total number of acceptances at Oxbridge in the relevant period or the total number of relevant black school students. For comparison, if you take an opinion poll of 1,000 people (selected in an appropriate manner) and 50 of them say they’re going to vote Lib Dem, then it’s valid to say that the party has 5% support. There’ll be a considerable margin of “error”, as Chris Squires points out in the first comment (I’ve no idea whether his precise figures are correct), but the finding is certainly not invalid. (Your wife could no doubt explain this better. :wink:)

  • I’m sure that I read that the actual data is not completely accurate in that it is only noting those that wished to enter their ethic origin. Is it therefore possible that the actual number of black students is on par with the number achieving 3 A’s ? (accepting this in itself is poor data due to subjects etc as raised above).

    The story here is Cameron making cheap points, he was wrong and should admit it. If the data, on analysis, shows Oxbridge do not get the enough suitable applicants from any ethnic grouping then the issue is with FE not HE….

  • Malcolm, can’t you let me make sweeping generalisations in peace? 🙂

  • The answer is bound to be found in a range of factors of course but the most obvious conclusion from Mark’s graph must be that the main failure here is in the school system.

    Are the schools where those kids are taking their a levels failing to spot and support the pupils who might make it into the leading universities?

  • Ed, the damage is done way before sixth form.

  • gramsci's eyes 19th Apr '11 - 12:02pm

    Teebs- okay it is good value, but there is a closed market via accommodation, and obligatory dinners from the college. There is fees.

    All postgrads pay additional college fees on top of that (overseeas or not).

    In fact the future of postgraduates seems to be one area not discussed in the tuition fees debate. The status, tenure and renumeration of postgradraduate researchers is a scandal.

    Relatively recently there was a post doctoral research post advertised for Imperial (cutting edge stuff on superconductors)- It was something like 14K.

  • As someone has mentioned already a signficant proportion of black students apply for toughest courses (Law and Medicine). Very few apply for the statistically easier courses (Classics for instance).

    I went to Oxbridge and did a bit of access work and continue to do interview prep with a charity that helps kids from deprived schools. The major problems are
    1) Teachers – so many kids say their teachers tell them not to apply because Oxbridge isn’t for them. The Laura Spence issue a few years ago is still mentioned. Cameron has probably set back the cause further
    2) Subjects chosen – so many children from poorer backgrounds take the wrong subjects. A lack of Maths is a huge problem generally which is actually incredibly useful if not compulsory. Lots of pupils take Law and Sociology A-levels not realising that the universities would rather you did History or English even if you want to apply for Sociology or Law.

  • Who cares? Why should a degree from Oxbridge mean more than a degree from somewhere else anyway? For most subjects it is just intellectual snobbery. If asked I wouldn’t apply, if accepted I wouldn’t attend!

    Better to tackle the overrepresentation of Oxbridge types in our political and media classes than to try and stack Oxbridge with more normal folk.

  • Just in response to Lester Holloway’s comment, it seems clear to me from the graph that black students are, for whatever reason, underachieving in the school system. The vast gap between the percentage who sit GCSEs and the percentage who get 3 As at A level is surely evidence of that? The problem, it seems to me, is trying to identify what these reasons are and how to rectify them.

  • Greg ” Teachers – so many kids say their teachers tell them not to apply because Oxbridge isn’t for them.”

    This is undoubtedly true, and boils down to a mixture of two problems:

    (i) Ignorance – that can be of “the system”, or poor advice on what subjects are required, or poor preparation for the interview process. Some of these issues can be addressed by University outreach programmes.

    (ii) Prejudice / inverted snobbery – basically down to anti-elitism; prejudice against Oxbridge because of what it (supposedly) represents – the pinacle of a pyramid of excellence that is by its very nature highly exclusive. There is little that outreach programmes can do to change closed minds in the education sector.

  • On the subject of state secondary school teachers’ misconceptions leading to them discouraging students from applying to Oxbridge, the Sutton Trust did some research on this in 2007, available here: http://www.suttontrust.com/news/news/teachers-showing-alarming-misconceptions-about-oxbridge/

    The picture is quite depressing. The debate is often framed in terms of the ‘failure’ of Oxbridge and othere universities to admit ‘non-traditional’ students, but the real problems lie in the school system.

  • Box – the Sutton Trust has some great research on Selective Schools, too.

    http://www.suttontrust.com/site-search/?keywords=grammar+schools&x=21&y=22

    One of the key messages is that “top” Comprehensives are far more socially exclusive than top Grammars (Messrs Miliband passim).

  • Box is right. It is also worth nothing how much Oxbridge spend on trying to improve the admissions process and the amount of funding available there for students.

    Whilst I was at Cambridge (year before 3,000 level fees) students who got the full loan + grant were given another grant by the university of up to 1,000 (which has gone up considerably since). There were extensive funds for travel, dissertations, sports equipment and general emergencies. On top of that you only paid 30 weeks rent a year.

    It should be noted as well that the substantial body of the academics are certainly not right wing or elitist. Although it varies from department to department I had some lecturers who made Marx look moderately right of centre. The unversity wants to take the best students not hooray henry’s becuase it is these students who they have to teach in small supervision groups and who often provide free/cheap research assistance directly and indirectly.

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