Getting in to Oxbridge

I have read with interest the allegations that Oxford and Cambridge do not admit enough pupils from poorer and non professional backgrounds. From my regular contacts with Oxford I think it is a much more welcoming institution than when I went there, which does much more to reach out to people who do  not come from communities with strong Oxbridge links. The University spends time talking to schools that have no history of sending pupils to the university, time encouraging more students to apply, and provides a range of bursaries and scholarships to help some students with costs. It has made good progress in changing attitudes within the University and in welcoming people from all backgrounds.

I was the first person in my family to go to university. I was surprised when a teacher suggested to me that I put my name in for the Oxford entrance exam at the beginning of my fourth term in the 6th Form. I was just 16, as I had jumped a year at  prinary school. What little I knew about Oxford made me think it was unattainable. They told me at school I would  be in  with a chance, and I am grateful to them for putting opportunity in my way. Everyone with a chance needs an adult in their school or family circle who suggests they try. Governors, Councillors and teachers must ensure all state schools look out for talent to apply to the best universities.

I was  very self critical in the 6th form, struggling to develop a  well informed voice I was happy with. I pitched myself against the great minds I read in books and thought I always fell short. I tried out  various styles of analysis and writing. One essay attracted particular criticism from a teacher which it doubtless deserved. When challenged why I was writing like that, I replied  defensively without thought or good reason that I assumed that was what Oxford would want.

Then came one of those defining moments that teachers sometimes achieve without realising it. He replied, “In that case why do you want to go there?” The sheer irreverence of the quip made me realise Oxford could be for people like me, and was only worth going to if it could further my development. He in a way liberated me from possible  failure, and confirmed a realisation I had often flirted with that  study  was about me, the quality of my enquiry  and the development of my ideas. There are strict limits to how much anyone else can teach you once you have grasped the conventional wisdom of your subject. I was already grappling with what I thought were the imperfections of the contemporary work in my discipline.

I was invited to interview. The system was you went to stay at your first choice College,  but had to stay for longer in case other Colleges in their group – there were 3 groups – also wanted to interview you for a place.

I was staying in a noisy room in an annex building on  a main road. It was cold and the room friendless as the student that usually lived there had had to strip the room for my arrival. I waited and waited until I was finally summonsed to an interview. It was perfunctory. There was no apparent intellectual challenge. I assumed they were going through the motions and had decided against me by the time I got there. I had not researched who was likely to be interviewing me and felt cheated there was no good argument.  I did not understand the significance of the hypothetical question about which year I could turn up if offered a place.  I waited and waited for an interview elsewhere but none came. I was finally told I could go. By this time I was thinking I was glad I would go off to London who had already offered me a place if I got 2 E grade A levels . In London they had engaged with my views at the interview.

I was amazed when a letter came some time later offering me a place and an Open Scholarship. My bad feelings about my sojourn  at Oxford were banished by the offer and by the positive reaction to it of my school. It certainly changed my life. Oxford did not need  me to take any  A levels but I stayed at school to complete them. 2 Es were needed for a local authority  grant. Although that took all the pressure off, for me it did the opposite. I now felt I had to live up to the faith placed in me. I got permission to go to the local university library to work, as I had run out of books to read at school.

In those days we were not to my knowledge invited to any preparatory or introductory discussions. There was no attempt to reach out when you arrived for interview. The Oxford I went to was full of ex public school boys who were better prepared.  They were more used to the College life as it reflected patterns from the richer boarding schools. They had been  tutored for the exams and made conversant with the dons who would interview them.

The modern Oxford I meet has a much  better range of people from a wide range of backgrounds. There are many more women with the strict segregation of old Oxford with just 5 women’s colleges broken down completely.  The student groups I have spoken to do not see their past school or social origins as significant as it was in the Oxford I attended. Oxbridge provides a good home for those with the discipline of self instruction and study. I just hope every school does encourage their brightest and best to apply. One of the best features of  Oxford when I was an undergraduate was the open lecture lists. You could go to any lecture in any subject. I tended to go to the most interesting lectures in some other subjects to provide a more rounded education, rather than to the ones in my subject which did not normally present new material if you had read enough.



  1. mickc
    November 13, 2017

    Oxbridge is utterly irrelevant to modern life, and its products seem mediocre e.g. Cameron and Osborne. Regrettably, another British institution trading on past glories. It will, of course, survive because of political conections but become less and less consequential other than as tourist destinations.

    1. Lifelogic
      November 13, 2017

      Not at all perhaps in PPE, Jurisprudence and History but in science/engineering/maths/medicine/technology/computer science …. they are still excellent.

      Even if they are generally are absurdly pro EU, full of green crap and dreadfully left wing.

  2. Fedupsoutherner
    November 13, 2017

    Well, your attendance there has certainly benefited you John and in turn your constituent s and those of us who read your entries everyday. I believe that with good teachers behind you, encouragement from parents and a personal ambition to do well, anything is possible. You don’t have to be wealthy to do well today. You just have to have the right encouragement from those around you to achieve great things. I have seen this personally with a friends daughter who attended an ordinary secondary school but was accepted into Oxford through sheer hard work and parents that cared. Its the same with anything in life. How much do you want something? Let’s not forget though that great things can still be achieved without university. It depends on personal ambition and which route you choose to get there.

  3. Duncan
    November 13, 2017

    I think you may be missing the point of these attacks John. The criticisms aimed at British institutions are politically motivated and with no evidential basis to corroborate or underpin their accusations. The accusations are intended to provoke further criticism and generate headlines and further political pressure

    It is the strategy of the left. Present an opinion as FACT or in more brusque jargon, tell a lie and keep telling that lie until they achieve their aims

    The fundamental aim is to infer a slander onto anyone who dare challenge the accusation made. Feminists perform the same political tactic, for it is political and with a highly political objective. Only Philip Davies (MP, Shipley) appears to understand this style of politics

    Note the following example. A feminist Labour or Tory MP issues a declaration (yes, these people so are so self-important that they do issue what they believe is some form of decree) that there’s not near enough individuals with a female gender in British business. If you were to disagree with such a statement you would immediately be slandered as a misogynist. The statement itself suggests there’s a male conspiracy at work to suppress female participation in business which is of course nonsense. There are many reasons why there are more men than women in British business but misogyny is NOT one of them.

    The left have a strategy. It is to disentangle and reconstruct sections of power and pack them with people who share a similar mindset and a similar politics. The media in the west is almost entirely liberal left. The strategy is executed using using slander, continual activist pressure and political positioning

    Nigel Farage and his continual attacks and campaigning against the EU and pro-EU clique achieved great things. He showed how to challenge this seemingly all consuming clique and win. You challenge these people and you challenge them with confidence and courage. And NEVER APOLOGISE. Their aim is to force an apology. Once you apologise THEY HAVE WON

    Unfortunately for the British people we have a Conservative Party that is utterly gutless and has capitulated to this clique. The Tories simply fail to understand that the vast majority of British people are not liberal but socially conservative. Million of trad-Labour voters are socially conservative.

  4. Mark B
    November 13, 2017

    Good morning

    A good story and thank you for sharing.

    Of course, if you live in Scotland you can go to university for FREE! Unless of course you are English, then you will have to pay.

    It would indeed be a good policy if we could do something like this on England. Find the best and brightest from poorer backgrounds who have the ability to go on to higher things. This should be irrespective of race, religion or gender. No identity politics please. It should also be restricted to the sciences, maths and engineering. No PPE!

  5. Caterpillar
    November 13, 2017

    Whilst all the above is fine, I think is is a little sad that other universities do not have the (history to have the) resources to deliver a tutorial system.

  6. Sakara Gold
    November 13, 2017

    Everyone remembers their Alma mater with fondness, but Oxbridge is still provides an Establishment education. They are still selective on their choice of undergraduates based on background, English accent and school, though I acknowledge that progress has been made.

    I had to get an ‘A’ and two ‘B’s to get to my university, but I had the advantage of not having to know any Latin or Greek to pass the entrance exam.

    Does the country need more Classics graduates in the modern world? I’m not sure, I think we need more Mandarin speakers, more software engineers, more specialists in robotics and AI, more aerospace engineers. And overwhelmingly, we need more trade negotiators. Where was our government prepared brexit plan, when we needed it after the referendum?

  7. sm
    November 13, 2017

    I am 72, and was brought up in East London. The boys I was friendly with went to excellent Grammar Schools there, but came (almost exclusively) from the poorest of backgrounds. The schools were proud that they regularly sent a considerable percentage of their pupils to Oxbridge, including some of the most academically-demanding colleges. It has been my lifetime experience, via family and friends’ children, that both Oxford and Cambridge continue to take pupils from all backgrounds.

    (This is NOT an encomium for Grammar schools in the C21st, by the way – I believe their day has passed.)

  8. Dave Andrews
    November 13, 2017

    Pupils from poorer background have to contend with the comprehensive state school, where peer pressure to descend to the least level of ability means their standards gravitate towards secondary moderns.
    At least in the grammar school system, the least level of ability is of a higher standard, and allows brighter children more chance to excel.

  9. Narrow Shoulders
    November 13, 2017

    Fascinating insight.

    Did you find out why they offered a place following your poor (by your perception) interview?

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Reply I assume because they had decided to offer me a place based on the exam work I had submitted.

  10. Roy Grainger
    November 13, 2017

    Good comments John but you are still perpetuating the view that Oxbridge is at the pinnacle of our education system – as long as this goes on it will continue to result in a massive over-representation of Oxbridge graduates in the higher levels of the civil service, government, BBC, and Guardian newsroom all in the informal Oxbridge old-boy network. The fact is in certain arts subjects (and pure science subjects at Cambridge) it is but in certain scientific and engineering and many other topics it isn’t. I hope every school encourages their best and brightest to apply for a university course which is suitable for them at ANY University.

    1. Sir Joe Soap
      November 13, 2017

      I echo your last sentence but some of this is uninformed.
      Cambridge has a Natural Science Tripos, so no single subject pure science degrees.
      Oxford has a 4 year Chemistry degree, including a final year research project – as good and pure a science degree as it’s possible to imagine, alongside “pure” Physics as an undergraduate subject.
      The tutorial system adopted at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham universities, alongside lectures used, at least, to ensure their attractiveness as places to study science.

  11. Sir Joe Soap
    November 13, 2017

    Yes, I remember travelling up from Grammar School, looking on the College notice board and seeing that no others wanted to interview me before my Oxford college did. An “all or nothing” interview focussed the mind. I couldn’t bear the thought of having wasted that couple of days, staying in a large old room in freezing temperatures, heated by a small 2 bar electric heater. In the end, all was well and the resilience bred by both that first experience and the intensity in everything Oxford has stood me well. I wonder how those formative experiences compare with those today, though, with the “inclusive, welcoming” Oxford which you describe.

  12. Richard W
    November 13, 2017

    A beautiful and inspiring account, thank you.

  13. a-tracy
    November 13, 2017

    You can be poor eg the child of a broken home and tick the diversity box but with wealthy, connected family members. I’d be interested to know about the parents and close family of those accepted in Oxbridge, what % are from parents from academia, the church and heads of other faiths, the unions, what % have a parent/aunt or uncle with Oxbridge degrees?

    What we really need to do is push ten other Universities around England to a higher status and expectation and examination intake and not backpedal on that. To get into Warwick the requirement was four A grade A-levels or 3 A grade A levels and a grade 1 STEP exam in the days before A*s now I believe they expect a couple to be A*. We will only truly change this for children from all over England when Oxbridge has more competition.

  14. JJE
    November 13, 2017

    It seems from reading your account you had your place before the interview because you went to a school where the staff had links with the college and had put in a word.. The same applied at my school which was a direct grant grammar with a number of ex Oxbridge teachers. In this way the grammars acted as a bridge for their best pupils.
    That bridge has been blown up by the removal of the grammar schools and the teachers who had those links are retired.
    If anything the comprehensive schools discourage ambition and don’t know how to deal with talented pupils. Their focus is getting as many pupils as possible to meet the minimum target levels set by the government.

    When my academically gifted daughter was unsure of her ambition and not getting any support from her “Outstanding” comprehensive I advised her to wait a year and apply after the A Level results were known rather than rely on predicted grades, thinking “Try not offering her an interview now” when the results came through.

    Processing applications on the basis of known results seems much fairer and something the rest of the world seems to be able to manage.

    Reply I got my place based on the exam papers!

  15. Bert Young
    November 13, 2017

    Apart fr0m the last 18 months – while I have been twiddling my thumbs , I had 25 years of exposure to Oxford . During this time my contact with its undergraduates gave me the highest impression of the range and quality of its student body . The same was true of the one post graduate college I was associated with . The range of the social classes applied equally to those students from abroad .
    I am sure things have moved on substantially from the time when John was there . The level of intellect and the quality of the research programmes was very high – at least the equal of what was going on elsewhere in the academic world . It is true that the level of debt that each student now accumulates is very high at Oxford , much of this is due – in my opinion ,to the cost of maintaining an active social life . This social life style is as important as the academic challenges each student is exposed to ; by the time of graduation they can face the challenges of the world with a confidence we should all admire . What they subsequently contribute is a major benefit to our society .

  16. William Long
    November 13, 2017

    My experience of Oxford college entrance exams is too long ago to be relevant now, though in relation to your experience it is worth saying that the two inteviews I attended (about seven years before you) were totally different from each other; one was like yours and I wondered what all the fuss was about. The other though was a real grilling by people who very clearly were much cleverer than I was!
    From what I have gathered anecdotally about the present system, Oxford colleges are extremely keen to attract entrants from the state system and particularly from less privileged parts of it, to the extent that candidates from expensive schools often feel that it is they who are disadvantaged. The fact that the colleges are not as successful as they would like is not a comment on them, but on the low level of aspiration within much of the state education system. It is there that the change in attitude needs to come rather than the University or its colleges and the present Government should say so.

  17. mike fowle
    November 13, 2017

    Very interesting. I tried for Cambridge, Sidney Sussex, and failed. I suspect that a public school education would have made me more articulate, but I have no regrets. I was accepted by Exeter University. Having stayed on for an extra term to apply to Cambridge, I went to work in London till the start of the new term. I found I had outgrown university and I only stayed for a year.

  18. Epikouros
    November 13, 2017

    The Quality of universities have plummeted over recent years. There are many reasons mostly created by government policies especially; departure from the separation of vocational and academic studies, funding as a means to give lip service to a better educated nation and to manipulate youth unemployment figures. Also progressives interference by their endeavours to increase diversity and social justice only to replace merit and excellence with mediocrity.

  19. oldtimer
    November 13, 2017

    My old college, Pembroke, makes great efforts to engage the interest of those who live in disadvantaged areas such as East London. It runs local courses and offers a week long summer school at the college to provide practical advice and experience. The scheme has been extended to the north of England. Other colleges offer similar schemes. More generally the system of Open Days run by the University, where you just turn up, appears to be a popular and successful initiative. I do not recall that such schemes were available back in my day, the 1950s. The University web site also provides very clear information about University degree courses, what they involve and the application process. Critics should do their homework.

  20. Tweeter_L
    November 13, 2017

    Thank you for this thoughtful and interesting piece which I very much enjoyed reading. You have described how determined and brave many students of our vintage had to be. For teenagers from non-privileged backgrounds leaving home usually for the first time, emotional support was not nearly as forthcoming as it is now: it was very much “sink or swim” and could be overwhelming. My own children’s experience of making the transition to university was far easier than it was for me, because we as parents were more involved (not too much, I hope) and more is done by institutions to facilitate the settling-in process.

  21. Chris
    November 13, 2017

    Interesting, as I also went to a state school. In the sixth form I got to hear that some other pupils had been talking to teachers about applying to Oxford and Cambridge, but had no such approach myself. I thought if they can do it so can I, and duly went through the application process.
    I arrived for interview at Cambridge with one of the college tutors in his college room, as I recall with his feet up on a table with a crate of wine next to it. He evidently had a copy of my headmasters reference in front of him. His first question was, “your headmaster recommends you shouldn’t be accepted, do you know why? to which I replied no. There was some further informal conversation, about which I have no recollection. He then came out with the comment that, your headmaster says you are a leading light in the drama society. As this was untrue (I was not even a member of the drama society) I had no difficulty in pointing out this was incorrect. As I was about the leave the tutor said, your headmaster has asked me to send his regards to Lord (double barreled name), any idea who he is? to which I replied no, and he replied no neither have I. At that stage I left and was wished luck with my application.
    To my surprise several weeks later I received an offer with an Entrance Exhibition. I had no requirement to get any A levels but had to pass an exam called Use of English, which I struggled to do.
    On reflection I believed my headmasters intention was probably selfish, as he would have hoped for me to stay at school for an extra year and get a better chance at a place or award, and the associated kudos for the school.
    So whenever people talk about the bias of Oxbridge toward public schools, I recall my personal experience when I found this was clearly not the case. I do however reflect on the current entrance policies, with an ever increasing emphasis on merit and international competition (primarily with American universities), and wonder how many of my contempories would have made it in the current environment.

  22. British Spy
    November 13, 2017

    I have known people who got to so-named upper class universities. I guess all of them were from what are called working-class families.
    Going there can disqualify you from jobs which are perceived as needing someone who is one with ordinary people. For this reason it is always tough for a graduates, if failing to get a job commensurate with their qualifications, getting a well-paid yet “lower” job. You are thought, with some justification, that you will not stick it. So you stay unemployed or get a part-time bar job.
    I worked in labouring jobs with highly qualified people who had to lie about their education and produce believable fake cvs from indicating previous work with closed-down companies thus avoiding checking. You have to hide your accent too. … and other mannerisms. I know!

  23. Dennis Zoff
    November 13, 2017

    Thank you John, for your interesting story.

    I personally did not have the guidance or support from my family (unfortunately, I lost my mother from the age of ten, resulting in a rather unfamiliar family to family shuffle during my teens) or my local school, which, I am sad to say, inhibited my formative years and were not particularly educationally encouraging to its pupils!

    Though I did learn to tough it out and gain self-confidence, which I believe is a precious commodity and the key to accomplishing extraordinary personal feats, which one does not know are possible, at the time!

    By contrast to yours, my initial education was by way of the old apprenticeship scheme, available in those days when businesses saw the value, now thankfully this is returning. However, I made sure my children went to good public schools and Universities as an absolute minimum for their education and self-belief, and both exceeded my expectations. This is not a reflection on state schools, but simply my personal prejudiced experience.

    My chance came later with a renewed robust appetite for self-study and support from my then company, where individuals were constantly encouraged and challenged to excel beyond their comfort zone.

    I accepted their challenge and through the Open University, Reading Uni, York Uni and finally Surrey Uni. I achieved my aim of becoming fully Chartered in my chosen profession. The study was always of a rigorous technical nature, leading to membership of several Chartered technical and non-technical Professional bodies.

    Therefore, I am more personally inclined to be more biased towards Technical/Engineering/Science/Medical degrees, which I consider more useful to society at large. Of course, I recognise I can be rightfully challenged on this comment and welcome any challenge to this assertion.

    Additionally, I keep a healthy discussion balance between my University Professor friends and Senior officers of international businesses. It is a luxury I am keen to protect, as it gives me an interesting insight into both sides of the of Education versus real life Business needs equation, which is, and should remain highly intertwined.

    My colleagues and I have a keen interest in finding talent from non-Universities, Universities, and different social backgrounds. I have some interesting stories of individuals that came to us with low educational standards (not HR friendly) with whom we took a punt, and who have gone on to become highly successful CEOs.

    There are gems out there in all walks of life that cannot be placed into the usual dated educational box, who are waiting and willing to be discovered. They just need the right chance and incentive.

  24. Iain Gill
    November 13, 2017

    These days those that do make it from state schools have almost always had additional tuition outside their school environment.

    I refuse to believe that the best student in a 2000 pupil sink comp has any less potential compared to someone who went to one of our leading public schools where they were in the bottom 5 % and still got straight A’s

    I have worked for, alongside, and had work for me the product of Oxbridge and have never been that impressed, ok but nothing special, the gifts they usually have are contacts and a supreme arrogance.

    For me the whole edifice is exposed when you see groups of Brits go work in the USA, where the local senior management care little for accent, accent, tie, or college and mostly the Oxbridge lot are rapidly overtaken by everyone else, they need to stay in the UK for the prejudice of others to help them.

    So as much as I respect you John I wouldnt defend the system as it stands.

  25. Rien Huizer
    November 13, 2017

    Good post!

  26. forthurst
    November 13, 2017

    “The modern Oxford I meet has a much better range of people from a wide range of backgrounds. There are many more women with the strict segregation of old Oxford with just 5 women’s colleges broken down completely.”

    In other words, the deprecation of Englishmen is proceeding according to plan.

    1. rose
      November 13, 2017

      Today the BBC Womans Hour mounted an attack on Englishmen for being 92% of charity trustees. Yes, they weren’t being attacked for bad behaviour but for good behaviour. They are apparently giving up hours and hours of their valuable time managing charities while other sorts of people are being paid through the nose to be CEOs and other employees of said charities. Apparently it is also the case that because these trustees are what they are, they can’t be serving the interests of the recipients of their charity. They don’t represent them, you see. So something must be done about it. the Cultural Secretary of the Charity Commission (female of course) was on hand to advise.

  27. Lifelogic
    November 13, 2017

    I certainly got the impression from some people involved that Cambridge colleges really do their very best to judge potential. They well understand that someone with lower grades from a poor school can often have more potential than another candidate with better grades. I understand some colleges have weighting scale for each schools and analyse outcomes too.

    When I went up for interview (from an ordinary northern grammar school – maths/physic)
    I had already done my A levels and the STEP exams. I remember the train fare cost me what for me was a fortune and when I got there they just offered me a place (without asking my anything at all). Being from a large family and thus fairly poor at the time I remember being a bit annoyed – thinking they could have saved me all the train fares and just sent out an offer letter!

    Still I had fun looking round many of the colleges, libraries and lovely chapels in the freezing East Anglian fog. Once there I had a fabulous time.

    The one certain thing is that if you do not apply you will not get in – so apply – nothing much to lose after all if you have got the train fare that is.

  28. pleb
    November 14, 2017

    I expect your parents were proud, as my working class parents were when my brother was accepted for Oxford.
    I remember always being irritated at the framed acceptance telegram on the mantlepiece over the coal fire.
    Now I cringe at the ignorance and unawareness my former self.

Comments are closed.