Oxbridge must do more to combat the North-South divide

For anyone interested in access at Oxford, this summer may have brought some cheering news. The university will, this year, admit the highest number of state school students in at least forty years.

There is good reason to say that this shouldn’t be a surprise. Access-based programmes and activities, created with the intention of broadening the character of Oxford’s student body, are only growing in prominence around the university. College tours and Q&A sessions offered to groups of state school students are now such a common sight across colleges that you could be forgiven for assuming we were on the cusp of a genuine sea change in Oxford admissions – if one wasn’t underway already. If only it were that simple. Outside of London and the South East, it most definitely is not.

To see exactly what situation we are in danger of sleepwalking into, you need only consult the other major piece of access-related news to surface during this vacation. The OxStu reported earlier this summer that state schools in the South East of England send nearly one-and-a-half times more students than the national average to Oxbridge, with Outer London state schools sending almost one-and-a-quarter times the national average. Of course, when a category of schools is sending more than the national average proportion of its students to Oxbridge, it must follow that some other category is sending less. Predictably, it is not the South East’s private school students who are losing out to the phenomenal performance of their state funded neighbours. Instead, it is students in the regions like my own – the number of students from North West England’s schools arriving at Oxbridge is a mere 0.57 times the national average.

The three regions comprising the North of England have a population almost double the size of London – yet the presence of two Northern students in the same room can seem like a genuine talking point.

For me, the most surprising element of this research was that it hadn’t been conducted sooner; coming down to Oxford University from the North, the sudden lack of Northern accents can be even more conspicuous than the rise in the drinks prices. The three regions comprising the North of England have a population almost double the size of London – yet the presence of two Northern students in the same room can seem like a genuine talking point.

It should be ridiculous that two students from Manchester and Newcastle are seen as having more in common geographically than a pair of students living at either end of the Piccadilly line, but the regional admissions statistics indicate how this has become possible.

If we want to overturn this regional imbalance, something clearly has to change. Oxford’s colleges have divided the country up amongst themselves for the purpose of outreach events, and these events are phenomenally valuable for provincial schools lacking application experience. But the practice of allocating small portions of London to many colleges already managing other regions, as opposed to making the city the sole responsibility of a smaller number of colleges, can result in London boroughs receiving more localised attention than their counterparts out in the sticks. Furthermore, in any event, there is a limit to how much these activities can achieve.

There is clearly something much deeper going on, and part of the problem can inevitably be traced to Oxford’s historical elitism and closed-door mentality. Some schools boast a great number of former students who have gone on to Oxford, who can be relied upon to visit their former sixth forms and reassure prospective applicants that getting to Oxford is possible. Many other schools have no base of successful applicants to draw on, and their students are thus deprived of this important resource.

The constant aggregation of prosperity in the country’s South Eastern corner – and the steady exodus to poorer regions of those lacking it – has made it more likely that some of the better-off state school students in the region will break through into Oxford. As such, a growing number of state schools in the area have been able to build up their experience of the applications process, while also developing a group of alumni to call on for advice and inspiration. Meanwhile, Northern comprehensives without such a group are forced to cast around to other schools in the area for this crucial support – difficult, when neighbouring comprehensives have experienced the same problems themselves.

But ultimately, it is this unfair distribution of prosperity in the UK which is at the heart of why the North lags behind the South in Oxbridge admissions. Social problems and deprivation of course exist in London and the South East, but state schools in the region’s better-off parts are benefitting from the proximity of wealth and power just as much as most Northern schools are suffering from the absence of it.

Students at London’s best state schools – generally quite a well-off group – can enjoy school or personal visits to the entirety of the “golden triangle” of British universities for the price of a commute; many Northern comprehensive students are unable to arrange a single one during Year 12 because the country’s academic powerhouses are concentrated so distantly from them.

It is this unfair distribution of prosperity in the UK which is at the heart of why the North lags behind the South in Oxbridge admissions.

Travelling into the centre of London, young residents see the signs of prosperity all around them, in the form of new skyscrapers, shiny corporate signage and efficient transport networks. The centres of Northern cities are increasingly looking glossier; the journey into them, however, often means confronting the ghosts of Thatcherite deindustrialisation – the dilapidated former factories and brownfield land that to Londoners is familiar mainly from just about any gritty 80s TV series you can think of. Growing up in this environment will give you the impression that the rest of the country is leaving you behind. Why would you expect the country’s best universities to be any different?

The problem is getting worse, not better. The Royal Photography Society’s collection was moved earlier this year, from Bradford’s National Media Museum to London’s V&A – London’s increasingly high-powered super-schools will benefit, while this will become one more educational opportunity that Northern comprehensives can’t afford. The South Eastern dominance of our application process is really a reflection of our woefully unbalanced and unfair economy and society. Until Britain stops concentrating its economic growth in London, while exporting its poverty to the Northern hinterland, we can only expect this regional admissions gap to widen.