Oxbridge admissions are ‘intimidating and complex’, says social mobility charity

Admissions processes for the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are “intimidating and complex”, and should be made simpler to avoid deterring students from poor homes, according to the leader of a social mobility charity.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said that “many bright students are put off the application process” by confusing arrangements for applying to the elite institutions.

A new report from the trust, published today, is calling for a single application process at each university not based on individual colleges, more transparency in the interview process and a review of the early application deadlines.

A rule that students cannot apply to both universities in the same year should also be reviewed, it says.

But both the ancient universities have accused the Sutton Trust of misunderstanding their admissions systems. Oxford said the charity was perpetuating myths.

The charity’s call for change comes just days after Cambridge announced it would be using university-wide, subject-specific admissions tests to screen applicants.

The tests are being introduced as schools begin to drop the AS-level after its “decoupling” from the main A-level qualification. Cambridge had argued that the AS was the best indicator of later performance at A-level.

Any additional tests, the trust argues, should be “genuinely useful” and not create a further barrier to access.

Today’s report, Oxbridge Admissions, says: “Oxford and Cambridge should each standardise their admissions processes across subjects and colleges as much as practically possible, to help students and teachers who are unfamiliar with the process.”

Sir Peter said today: “Our surveys and experience suggest that many bright state school students are put off by the application process, which is both intimidating and complex.

“Specifically, we believe that the universities rather than the colleges should control the admissions policies and interviews.

“The numbers of additional exams and tests should be reviewed, again to avoid advantaging those who gain from extra tuition and support.”

‘Perpetuating myths’

A spokeswoman for Oxford said the university was “committed to transparency and self-scrutiny” in order to avoid unfairly disadvantaging any group of candidates.

It already had a single central application process for candidates, regardless of college preference, she added.

The spokeswoman said the university was concerned that the Sutton Trust had based its recommendations on a series of assumptions that had “no evidence base”.

“One of our long-standing access partners is actively perpetuating some of the most common myths about how the selection process works,” she said, “These myths are a fundamental barrier to Oxford’s access work, and only reinforce perceptions that deter exactly those candidates we try hardest to encourage to apply”.

A spokesman for Cambridge said it was “disappointed” that the report demonstrated “a lack of understanding of our admissions process” and made “a series of incorrect and unjustified criticisms and recommendations”.

He added: “We have a proven track record of improving access. We are committed to widening participation while maintaining high academic standards. We continually review our admissions processes and the effectiveness of our extensive widening participation work.”

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