S is a 17-year old student, studying at a UK sixth form. From a modest background, she will be only the second person from her family to go to university, if she is successful in receiving an offer and taking up a place. Her passion, since childhood, is physics. Unsure of what exactly she wants to do as a career, she has decided to apply for a physics degree, rather than narrowing her options into a specific field. Her parents, as supportive as they are, will not be able to support her, financially. Therefore, employment on graduation, is absolutely essential. S, who exists entirely in a non-physical and hypothetical realm, for the purpose of this piece, is deciding where to apply to university. Oxford, Cambridge….or Lincoln.
Every January, following months of preparation, the crafting of a personal statement, admissions tests and a rigorous interview process, students who have applied to two rather famous universities nervously await the outcome. Will they, or won’t they, receive an offer? Days later, schools and colleges flood their social media feeds with news of their ‘success’ rate. The media finds their own angle to exploit. An annual brouhaha. Like a stuck record which needs to change.
Oxford and Cambridge are two brilliant universities. Academically driven candidates who are best-suited to either of them, should apply and should be encouraged and supported in doing so. But they are two of many wonderful institutions and their prominence in the national and international education conversation needs to be challenged. It is time to challenge the received wisdom and to cease the obsession with two of our many world-leading universities.
Before we begin, it is important to note and to stress that an ‘offer’ is just that. It is conditional and in no means a guarantee of a place. They are also a two-way process and our students may decide to accept other offers as their preference. Many do. Mostly, with good reason. As educators, our role is to offer the best advice along the way. This advice will include which universities are the most appropriate to apply to and which offers to accept. The advice, naturally, must be focused on the individual and not the perception of the institution.
We cannot ignore the fact that 800 years of history, 42 Prime-Ministers and hundreds of Nobel Prize winners on their shared CV makes for impressive reading. They are, in case my point is not clear, outstanding universities. I can state that as an objective fact and from personal experience. A student, driven by clear academic passion to study a subject in a tutorial environment with some of the finest experts in the field, who would thrive in the unique collegiate environment, should apply with enthusiasm.
However, more than 20,000 students achieve A*AA or more at A Level, each year and a third of them choose not to apply to Oxford or Cambridge. I hope that the decision not to proceed was a positive one, guided by their school, and that both the student and the school consider some of the following:
The ‘QS Top Universities’ world-rankings is an authoritative guide to the world’s best academic institutions. Oxford and Cambridge feature, of course, along with other UK universities. In 2021, Oxford was positioned 5th and Cambridge 7th. Also in the top ten, however, are Imperial College, London (8th) and University College, London (10th).
Edinburgh (20th), Manchester (27th), King’s College, London (31st), LSE (49th), Bristol (58th), Warwick (62nd), Glasgow (77th), Durham (86th), Birmingham (87th), Southampton (90th), Leeds (91st), Sheffield (93rd), St Andrew (96th) and Nottingham (99th) all make the top one-hundred. These are global rankings. They confirm that almost one in five of the world’s one-hundred best universities are in the UK. Yet still we obsess over just two of them.
These global rankings are also interesting for the increasing number of students looking to apply from the UK to overseas universities. Many find that access to the Ivy League, which dominates the QS world rankings, is not as complicated as it once was and that scholarships are accessible. The Fulbright Commission cites that 600 US universities offer scholarships of $20,000 or more and 250 of them offer 100% or ‘full ride’ scholarships.
I have supported students who have rejected Oxford or Cambridge in favour of a US university offer. Indeed, over 15% of students at CSFC accept offers from outside of the UK and a statistic which matters much more to us than Oxbridge offers is that over 80% of our students move on to a QS top one-hundred university.
There are many positive reasons for students to look beyond Oxbridge when applying through UCAS. Closer analysis leads to interesting conclusions and an applicant must ask themselves what it is they seek from a university. A glance at thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk is a good place to start. Oxford and Cambridge may be ranked at the top, overall, but if student satisfaction is a measure that matters to you, then St. Andrews (ranked 4th overall in the UK), comes out on top. Oxford and Cambridge don’t even make the top 100 in the UK, on this measure. If the quality of research is a priority, then Imperial and The LSE top the table, followed by Oxford and Cambridge in quick succession before Cardiff makes its mark. When ranked by graduate prospects, LSE and Imperial continue to lead the charge.
Individual students, selecting individual courses, may be mindful of the fact that subject areas are also ranked by various criteria. A young physicist, dreaming of taking her degree from the same institution as Isaac Newton but mindful of her graduate prospects may not have considered Lincoln (1st position for Physics /Astronomy graduate prospects) over Cambridge (9th). Finally, S has some clarity! Likewise, an aspiring economist keen to study at Oxford, where Adam Smith took his second degree, should take a look at Warwick, Bath, UCL, KCL and Strathclyde, which all rank above Oxford for graduate prospects as far as their economists are concerned.
Beyond these league tables, we must encourage students to look closer at the content of individual degree courses, the location and culture of the university and the type of tuition they offer, when assisting them in finding the right fit. A talented medic, with a love of languages and philosophy, whom I had the pleasure of teaching a few years ago passed up on the idea of an Oxbridge application in favour of Bristol, as the course was far more suitable to her interests than the more research-based courses offered by Oxford or Cambridge. Similarly, a musician, a student of English literature or an historian may do their research and find that the course content, tutors or location of other universities may provide a more suitable fit for three years of study. Why waste an application on a university that doesn’t suit your academic skills and interests, just because of its name?
The most important point I am trying to make is that applying to Oxford or Cambridge, brilliant institutions as they are, should be a positive choice based on them being a good fit for the individual. But we must move away from our obsession with these universities; move away from the social media and website feeds over ‘Oxbridge offers’ and either celebrate each and every offer on its own merit or view the university landscape through a different lens. The destination of leavers is the page on the website that interested parents should focus their attention on, not on the amount of offers from two universities, as an offer and a confirmed destination are two very different things. The role of the school or college is to assist the candidate to find the right course, at the right university – a course which stretches and extends the skills, talents and interests of the student in a location where they will thrive. This may, for many, be Oxford or Cambridge, but for many equally capable candidates, it may not be. For S, well, the decision is hers. But what we must never do is allow her to think that an offer from either of these universities in some way outranks an offer from a university to which she is better-suited.
Tom Arrand – Head, Cardiff Sixth Form College