Why We Should Look Beyond Oxbridge

Oxford and Cambridge are often hailed as the best universities in the UK. But does this generalisation cause us to overlook other institutions that might offer a similar or even better experience for many students?

Tom Arrand, Head of Cardiff Sixth Form College, shines a light on the prevalent focus on Oxford and Cambridge and how it can distract from the excellent offerings of other universities. It’s important to remember that Oxford and Cambridge are not for everyone, and students might find other institutions closer aligned with their interests.

Schools love celebrating the successes of their students – and rightly so. Websites and social media feeds should be full of stories which highlight the many-and-varied achievements of talented, hard-working young people. There are some stories in the course of a school year that we can predict. Pictures of jubilant teens, hugging each other and waving results papers in the air at the back end of August is one such joyous occasion. Another, which some of us struggle to understand, is the proliferation of articles in January, highlighting how many students have received offers from two universities in particular.

From the outset, let me be clear: Oxford and Cambridge are brilliant universities and the brightest candidates who are best suited to either of them, should apply and should be encouraged and supported in

doing so. However, a closer look at the landscape might just reveal that by shining a light on these institutions, we cast an unfair shadow on others and upon those who apply elsewhere. We need to shift paradigms, where ‘Oxbridge’ is concerned and view university applications, offers and destinations in a more enlightened way.

Cardiff Sixth Form College has not published, on its website, social media or in the local press, how many of our current cohort have received offers from Oxford or Cambridge. As it happens, this year more than one in ten of our Year 13 cohort were made offers. These are, of course, conditional and in no means guarantee a place. They are also a two-way process and our students may decide to accept other offers as their preference. Our task is to ensure that they receive the best possible guidance when making that decision. Such guidance should include whether or not an application is the right thing for the individual, and whether or not to accept the offer.

It is fair to say that, with over 800 years of history, 42 Prime-Ministers, hundreds of Nobel Prize-winners and Olympians and a reputation for excellent tuition and research, Oxford and Cambridge are universities that can justify their place in the collective national consciousness as being truly outstanding. And they are. A student who wishes to study, in depth and with unreserved passion, their academic discipline of choice in a one-to-one tutorial environment with the finest minds in the field, should look no further. If, in addition to that, the history, traditions, and college environment are attractive to them, then they may have found a perfect fit. That fit might not be right for everyone, of course.

Of 20,000 students who achieved A*AA in 2018, 6,000 did not apply to either Oxford or Cambridge*. Whilst there may have been many who doubted their suitability or credentials, I would hope that the vast proportion made a positive decision, supported by their school or college, to look elsewhere. When advising candidates, schools and colleges should be inclined to look beyond the one-upmanship of a press release and consider some of the following:

Four UK universities feature in the ‘QS Top Universities’ world-rankings. In 2019, Oxford was positioned 5th and Cambridge 6th. Hot on their heels, however, were Imperial College, London and University College, London, in 8th and 10th place, respectively. Edinburgh, Manchester, King’s College, London and The London School of Economics and Political Science all make it into the top 50, with Bristol knocking at the door in 51st position. In total, 19 UK universities make it into the QS top-100. To be clear, these are global rankings. Not a bad haul for an island that is smaller than eleven US states.

These global rankings are 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.

A few years ago, a student that I had spent hours with preparing for a (successful) application to Cambridge, rejected the offer in favour of access to Yale, on a full scholarship. In 2019, 15% of students from Cardiff Sixth Form College accepted offers outside of the UK, bringing the total number of students who took up a place at a QS top-100 institution to just shy of 80% of the cohort.

Closer to home, there are many positive reasons for students to look beyond Oxbridge when applying through UCAS. A glance at the various league tables for UK universities does place Oxford and Cambridge at the top, but a glance can often be misleading. If student satisfaction is a measure that you take seriously, then St. Andrews (ranked 3rd overall in the UK, by The Complete University Guide), comes out on top. Oxford (31st) and Cambridge (34th) are languishing behind. 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. Perhaps more startling is that when ranked by graduate prospects, Cambridge only manages 7th place and Oxford is way back in 22nd.

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 be advised to look at Birmingham (1st position for Physics /Astronomy graduate prospects) over Cambridge (13th). Likewise, an aspiring economist keen to study at Oxford, where Adam Smith took his second degree, should be aware that 28 UK universities rank higher for graduate prospects where their economists are concerned.**

Few educators would disagree that league tables can be as much of a hindrance as a help, so perhaps we should 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 our students 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 a 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.

What matters is that schools and colleges celebrate the success of all students and this should include where they go on to study at university. The destination of leavers is the page on the website that interested parents should focus their attention, 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.