Labour Party peer Andrew Adonis recently suggested that state school pupils be separated from privately educated pupils to increase diversity at Oxford and Cambridge colleges. A solution, or as Shahnaz Ahsan writes, the creation of a two tier system?


How do you solve a problem like state school students at Oxbridge – or rather, the lack of them? It’s a question that seems to rattle educators and commentators alike, resulting in its own sub-genre of endless Guardian think-pieces. The latest offering on the subject comes from Andrew Adonis, former education minister, and his ‘revolutionary policy’ to solve the issue of access at Oxford and Cambridge by creating state-school only colleges.

The problem with calling for a policy that isolates and segregates students from state schools, rather than looking to the myriad of contributing factors that result in unequal access, should be apparent. And yet, the fact that Adonis is proudly lauding his proposal in a national newspaper clearly indicates that it does need to be spelled out.

The root of the matter lies in the hugely unequal system of education in Britain that exists long before students begin filling out their UCAS forms. The statistics show that eight elite schools send more students to Oxbridge each year than nearly 3,000 state schools. While it is true that both Oxford and Cambridge and their constituent colleges have invested significantly in encouraging applications from underrepresented minorities, it is also true that the effects of these access programmes have been underwhelming.

“If Oxbridge selection truly does focus on excellence alone, and if, as we are told, that the universities are doing their utmost to level the playing field in selecting students, then why should it be necessary to create specific colleges that prioritise academic merit over family, heritage and ‘tradition’? 

Adonis calls for the creation of state school colleges which will focus “exclusively on access with excellence”. These colleges, he claims, would solve the issue of access “for students from schools and families without an Oxbridge tradition.” The problematic fact that an ancestral “Oxbridge tradition” apparently counts for more than “excellence” in the first place is conveniently sidelined.

If Oxbridge selection truly does focus on excellence alone, and if, as we are told, that the universities are doing their utmost to level the playing field in selecting students, then why should it be necessary to create specific colleges that prioritise academic merit over family, heritage and ‘tradition’? Should not all colleges be subscribing to that selection process? And if they aren’t, then perhaps the issue lies therein and not with the aspirational or academic levels of the state school student.

shahnaz ahsan graduation parents

Shahnaz Ahsan and her parents

The creation of state school only colleges would serve to perpetuate a tiered system of education; only now it would exist within Oxbridge. It is hard to believe that Adonis has ever met a state school student, let alone ask them what would have encouraged them to apply to Oxbridge. The opportunity to be isolated and contained within their own state-school colleges and looked down on by the other ‘traditional’ colleges, is presumably not it. “Will the new students be regarded as second-class? Only if they aren’t as good as the others,” Adonis blithely proclaims, betraying his complete lack of understanding of the challenges faced by Oxbridge state school students.

The belief that students are rated by their peers on academic merit alone, and not by their accent, parental income, knowledge of the London independent school system, and ability to bluster, is almost touching in its naivety. The easiest way to cause students to be regarded as ‘second class’ is to create a system that actually openly labels them as being such: which is essentially Adonis’ proposal.

black women oxford

Black Oxford students joined the global #BlackExcellence campaign with inspiring photos to encourage new generations of black students.

Adonis also draws the comparison to the establishment of women’s colleges which he lauds as promoting access. The fact that the creation of women-only colleges was because other colleges refused to allow women to join, rather than some giant leap forward in the educational aspirations of women, means that this comparison falls somewhat flat. Is Adonis really saying that “traditional” colleges cannot be trusted to let in state school students, and that state school student cannot hope for equal access through these avenues?

“Some student bodies are taking matters into their own hands to dispel the myths around applying to Oxbridge, and also to address the challenges about attending an elite university that the institutions may prefer not to acknowledge”

The good news in all of this is that Oxford and Cambridge rejected Adonis’ call for access colleges. Both universities also make concerted efforts to encourage students from under-represented backgrounds to apply. My own former Oxford college, Hertford, where I matriculated as a state school student in 2006, led the way fifty years ago with its Tanner Scheme in promoting access among state school students, gaining the reputation – not wholly complimentary by many in Oxford – as ‘the state school college’.

Hertford recently proudly showcased its part through a exhibition of portraits that commemorated some of the state school students who came to Oxford on this scheme. But over fifty years later, the issue is as prevalent as ever. However well intentioned, it is clear that the efforts to promote access are not working.

Some student bodies are taking matters into their own hands to dispel the myths around applying to Oxbridge, and also to address the challenges about attending an elite university that the institutions may prefer not to acknowledge. The Oxford University Islamic Society has held peer-to-peer shadowing days and weekends, inviting state school students to visit current students and shadow their experiences of lectures, halls and socialising.

But more needs to be done by the universities to encourage students to consider applying early on in their academic career, even before GCSEs. Universities could also work more closely with state school teachers in supporting students to apply to Oxbridge. Proposals from commentators such as Andrew Adonis show that the universities need to work closely with state schools and students rather than pay heed to irrelevant politicians if they truly want to tackle the issue of access.


Shahnaz Ahsan is a freelance writer and award-winning creator of short stories. Her debut novel will be released in 2020 by Hodder. Born and raised in West Yorkshire, she has lived in Oxford, London, USA, and Ethiopia, but her flattened northern vowels remain victorious. She is represented by @CWagencyUK

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