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It’s Halloween, and universities are back making national headlines. Chris Parr writes.

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8am Playbook


Scary thought

Oxbridge admissions processes are once again back on the front page

“As a meritocrat, I believe, not in positive discrimination but in a society where people are judged on their character and ability,” said last week's skills minister Andrea Jenkyns in a parliamentary debate about white, state-educated children on Wednesday.

Jenkyns, whose brief also covered universities, went on to say that access to higher education should be “based on a student’s attainment and their ability to succeed, rather than their background”.  Whether Jenkyns remains in charge of the brief—also covers universities—is in doubt, as we reported on Friday.

“[Last year] saw a record high number of white students who receive free school meals progressing on to higher education,” Jenkyns said. She added that since the Commons education committee published its influential report looking at how white working-class pupils have been “let down”, the government had tasked the Office for Students with “refreshing its entire access and participation work” and urged England’s regulator to look again at attainment for this demographic.

According to that committee report, th​​e proportion of white British pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) who were entering higher education by the age of 19 in 2018-19 stood at 16 per cent—the lowest of any ethnic group other than travellers of Irish heritage and Gypsy/Roma. By way of comparison, FSM-eligible Chinese pupils had a higher education participation rate of 73 per cent, while FSM pupils from a Black African background had a participation rate of 59 per cent.

It is fair to say there is a problem.

Front page news

It was into this context that The Telegraph once again slapped a university story on its front page this weekend, leading its Saturday print edition with the headline: “Fears of University Bias Against Fee-Paying Schools”.

In the online edition, the word “university” had been replaced with “Oxbridge”—perhaps for SEO reasons, perhaps because the headline writers momentarily forgot their obligations. A former Telegraph education editor tells Playbook that unless a higher education story specifically refers to Oxford, Cambridge—or, ideally, both—then “there is no point pitching it for coverage whatsoever”. ​​

And so it was that on Saturday, the Telegraph’s esteemed editors decided that the most important story of the day was the fact that Melvyn Roffe, who chairs the archaic-sounding Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, is worried about declining Oxbridge offer rates to pupils from independent schools.

For the uninitiated, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference represents the headteachers of private schools. Presumably whoever named the organisation wasn’t familiar with the word “headteacher” when the organisation, founded in 1869, was renamed to acknowledge the role of women in school leadership as recently as 1996. This is not a typo. Incidentally, the organisation uses the abbreviation “HMC”. Playbook wonders which “H” is being overlooked.

If you have ever seen the John Cleese film Clockwise, you'll know all about the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

But we digress. The Telegraph overlooked the current cost-of-living crisis, the cancellation of a fiscal event planned for today, the war in Ukraine and Suella Braverman’s email indiscretions to focus on the thoughts of Roffe.

In a column for the paper, Roffe said there was a “suspicion that school type is being used by universities as a ‘quick and dirty’ proxy measure to make the system look fairer”; and that this “may help meet targets, it may even have some Oxford admission tutors fist-bumping in glee”. Roffe is worried. “Is it really making things fairer? Is it actually going to ensure that everyone who would benefit from being at a selective university has a fair chance of getting there?” he asked.

The Telegraph contextualised the article by pointing out that state-school pupils are now more likely than their privately educated peers to get into the University of Cambridge. It is true that the intake of state-schoolchildren at Cambridge increased from 69 per cent in 2019 to 72 per cent last year—but it is important to remember that, according to the latest government data, just 6.4 per cent of school pupils in England are educated outside the state sector.

The Telegraph article then takes a look at the Cambridge admissions process and concludes that private school pupils, “who have dominated the elite universities for decades”, have been “squeezed” amid increased competition and targets to boost state school representation.

“While undergraduate places at Oxford and Cambridge have remained fixed at around 6,800 each year, applications have risen by 31 per cent—to more than 47,000—in the past five years,” the paper says—perhaps unwittingly hitting on one of the major issues here.

Because Oxford and Cambridge are Russell Group institutions, with centuries-old reputations, their grandeur in discussions about higher education is unavoidably exaggerated. In the mind's eye, Oxford and Cambridge are educating similar numbers to the Manchesters and UCL behemoths—but in reality this is far from the case.

Manchester has about 40,000 students across all levels, compared with Oxford’s 25,000. UCL has about 44,000 compared to Cambridge’s 24,000. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge sit in the top 20 UK institutions when measured by enrolment.

If these two bastions of British higher education really are so vital to the future of the UK’s youngsters, if they really are the high point of the country’s tertiary education offer, then might it not make sense for there to be an expansion in the number of pupils who are able to go there?

While other universities have significantly grown their intake as a result of reforms to the university funding system, Oxbridge has not. Financially, of course, it doesn’t have to—its endowments alone provide a level of stability not afforded to other providers. But morally, socially and civically—if there are increasing numbers of school leavers with the potential to succeed at high-prestige providers—shouldn’t those providers look to increase their scale?

“A truly fair university application system would surely spot talent wherever it is to be found, would break down rather than set up barriers of geography, background and schooling and would reward potential and not just performance,” Roffe continues in the Telegraph. “So, is a reduced success rate for independent school applicants to Oxbridge evidence that our university application system is becoming fairer? I’m not so sure.”

Playbook is pretty sure that Roffe is, as he is paid to do, focussing on the issue from the perspective of a private school provider. In reality, all students with the “talent” to succeed should be able to flourish in whichever HE institution suits them best—and although he may not want to hear it, the state sector is where talented individuals with more than enough ability to benefit from higher education are most likely to slip through the net.

More places, combined with contextualised admissions (which may go against Jenkyns’ ‘meritocratic” ideals, are one way to address this problem.

It now seems a lifetime ago that the prime minister but one, Liz Truss, was promising everyone with three As at A-level an Oxbridge interview.

And finally…

Later today, the Freedom of Speech (Higher Education) bill finally reaches the committee stage in the House of Lords, some 537 days after its first reading in the Commons.

It promises to be a fiery session in the Lords. Members of the second chamber have been steadily adding to a list of proposed tweaks, and a total of 37 amendment papers are now listed on the bill.

Playbook will keep a close eye on proceedings and bring you the latest news as it breaks.

On Research Professional News today

In our Sunday Reading, UPP Foundation chair Jon Wakeford argues that the student housing crisis requires a response.

The Office for Students’ decision to scrap a question on course satisfaction in a survey of students in England is “disappointing”, according to the country’s outgoing quality body, and universities and business leaders have urged chancellor Jeremy Hunt to recommit to spending £20 billion each year on R&D by 2024-25. Fiona McIntyre reports.

Mico Tatalovic tells us that Grant Shapps, the new business secretary appointed by prime minister Rishi Sunak, has promised to back R&D in an “elevator pitch” to the nation.

Sophie Inge brings us news that the number of animals experiencing unacceptable levels of distress, pain, suffering or lasting harm in UK research has more than doubled over the past few years, and independent inquiry examining what lessons can be learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic in Scotland will now be chaired by judge Neil Brailsford.

Plans to streamline data-sharing processes across the NHS will be accelerated to early January, a government memorandum has confirmed, and the European Commission’s employment department has not engaged with efforts to improve researcher mobility across Europe, according to a group representing research and technology organisations.

According to Andrew Silver, the European Commission and its Joint Research Centre evidence service have said EU member states need to better connect their scientific and policymaking communities to help ensure political decisions are based on the best available evidence, and the European Parliament’s research committee has called on the European Commission to “reassess” its implementation of the EU’s innovation fund for startups and switch to a “proper” way of managing its equity-based investments.

In the news

The BBC reports that a man has been charged with the murder of a student near university accommodation in Manchester and that protestant males from low-income backgrounds are under-represented on degree courses in Northern Ireland

The Telegraph reports that some universities are still requesting that student nurses be fully vaccinated against Covid despite it not being a government requirement. The paper adds that private school pupils are twice as likely to need top grades for universities and reports comments from an academic calling on Oxford University to publish entrance exam results.

The Telegraph also reports that University of Cambridge students are to receive free speech training, and that academics at Oxford have ben accused of trying to shut down a critical magazine. Meanwhile Cambridge alumni are pulling funding from Gonville and Caius College after academics said a speaker on gender was 'hateful'. The paper also tells us that Britain’s first 'black university' does not have permission to use the official title of university.

The Times reports Hume Tower at the University of Edinburgh could get its name back after a racism row, and has a full interview with Edinburgh's vice-chancellor Peter Mathieson.

The Times also reports Oxbridge leaders are urging a 95 per cent intake from state schools, and that students at the University of Cambridge will be given free-speech training. The paper also covers a father paying tribute to his son who died while attending the University of Exeter. The business pages have the story of the trial of eight people arrested over alleged “organised criminal attacks” on multibillion-pound government tax incentives meant to spur investment in technology and innovation.

The Guardian covers pop star Adele’s plans to study literature and has the latest on a row over affirmative action in US institutions. It also reports that security workers at UCL are to strike over pay and union recognition

The Independent reports that students ‘struggling to survive’ as loans fall short of soaring cost of living

In The Herald, two comedians recount their time at Scottish universities.


The House of Commons will hear the remaining stages of a bill on precision breeding in genetic technology.

The freedom of speech in higher education bill reaches the committee stage in the House of Lords.

The Society for Research into Higher Education is holding a webinar on academic writing groups.

Universities UK is set to release a cross-sector statement on freedom of speech in higher education.


The House of Lords will hear a question on the use of philosophy to improve the development of critical thinking at all educational levels.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee will hear evidence on people and skills in UK science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The Yorkshire and Northeast team of the Association of University Administrators is holding a conference at Northumbria University on the cost of living crisis.

Universities UK and the Quality Assurance Agency are hosting an online workshop on degree classifications and degree outcome statements.

The Quality Assurance Agency is set to release a consultation on access to higher education diploma specification.


The House of Commons will hold a Westminster Hall debate on the contribution of international students to the UK.

For a second day, the freedom of speech in higher education bill is at the committee stage in the House of Lords.

From 9:30, the House of Commons Science and Technology committee will hear evidence on delivering nuclear power.

The Westminster Forum is holding an event on the next steps for degree apprenticeships in England.

The European University Association is hosting a free online event on the importance of interdisciplinarity for the Net Zero transition.

The Quality Assurance Agency is holding an event on work-based and placement learning.

The Quality Assurance Agency is set to release a report on interdisciplinary collaboration.


The Centre for Global Higher Education is holding a webinar on the concept of internationalisation in higher education.

The Higher Education Policy Institute is set to publish a report on Research Leadership by Matthew Flinders.


From 10:30am, the Society for Research into Higher Education is holding an event in London on improving the relationship between higher education research and policy.

The Institute of Education is holding a conference looking at whether student loan reform in the UK worked as it has been 25 years since the Dearing Report. 

The Playbook would not be possible without Martyn Jones, Harriet Swain and Fiona McIntyre.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

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