‘Ambition is Critical’ – (David Hughes not Dylan Thomas!)

18 Apr


I simply can’t agree with Wales’ new Oxbridge ambassador, Paul Murphy’s statement that a lack of ambition amongst teachers is the reason that there are a limited number of Welsh students gaining admittance to Oxford or Cambridge universities. In the first instance such a simplistic assessment too easily allows those universities to ignore their own elitist approach to student intake. Examining the annual intake of these institutions, it is quite clear to see that their student population fails to adequately reflect UK society.

In 2011 five schools (Eton, Westminster, Hills Road Sixth Form College, St Paul’s Boys and St Paul’s Girls) had more students accepted to Oxbridge than 2,000 other schools in the UK combined. Last year saw a 30 year high for students starting Cambridge from state schools, yet there were still around a third of students coming from private education. A freedom of information request published in 2012 showed that bright candidates from fee-paying schools were around 25% more likely to access an Oxford course than those from state education.

These are narrow parameters by anyone’s standards and highlight the barriers put in place for Welsh students wishing to study at either college. Indeed the report published by Paul Murphy noted that a student from Hertfordshire was ten times more likely to be offered a place at Oxford or Cambridge than a student applying from the Welsh Valleys. There is no doubt that this level of rejection is a significant factor in the decisions of some in Wales to choose to apply elsewhere.

There has been a drop in the number of students from Wales gaining places at the two institutions in recent years. In 2008 there were 96 admissions to Oxbridge from Wales. That figure was 76 in the past year. However, I do not accept that we have seen a four year decline in teacher’s ambition for their students. The reality is that there are a range of factors that impact on this statistic.

The economic downturn has put ever greater financial strain on individuals and families. Studying in a closer proximity to home is now not just an attractive proposal but in some cases a necessity. The increase of tuition fees is also a major consideration. Although the Welsh Government have taken the bold and positive step of supporting students in Wales with their tuition fees policy, it is still a big factor in the choices of students to attend university at all, let alone one further afield than home. Language also plays a role as students wishing to pursue qualifications through the medium of Welsh will inevitably do so at a Welsh university. We should also look at subject preference. While there is no doubt that Oxford and Cambridge bring a heavyweight of reputation, students will examine the expertise of Welsh universities as part of their decision making process. If you were to study international politics, for example, there is a strong case to stay in Wales given Aberystwyth University houses the oldest international politics department of its kind in the world, one of the largest in Europe and one which has an international standard reputation. The strengths of Welsh universities in attracting students of the highest caliber, who could apply to Oxford or Cambridge, should not impulsively be seen as a national weakness.  (I should declare an interest as a former Aberystwyth university politics student – although neither Oxford nor Cambridge were destinations I was likely to travel).

Aberystwyth Mid Wales - Coast Towns & Villages (Aberystwyth seafront – who wouldn’t want to go to uni here?)

A further consideration is the legitimacy given to the Welsh Baccalaureate by Oxford and Cambridge admission tutors. Paul Murphy’s report noted that, “discussions with admissions tutors raised concerns with the Welsh Baccalaureate.” Indeed Oxford’s Undergraduate Admissions Director expressed concerns that Welsh students studying the Welsh Bacc could be “disadvantaged.” That has to be factored into the drop in numbers over recent years. Some of the criticisms of the Welsh Bacc have already been addressed of course through the qualifications review conducted by Huw Evans. This includes the introduction of grading the qualification which will strengthen its appeal and hopefully increase the numbers of Welsh students that are able to gain places on Oxbridge courses.

There is no doubt that teachers play an important role in developing students academically and socially for life after school. Their recommendations carry a lot of weight. However, my experience from speaking to teachers in Wales, some of whom are Oxbridge graduates themselves, is that it gives them immense pleasure and pride to be able to see one of their pupils go on to study at one of the big two UK universities. Where the potential, and willingness, is there for a student to apply to Oxford or Cambridge teachers will do their utmost to see that turned into a reality.


Here’s the Western Mail article on this issue with comments from me.

One Response to “‘Ambition is Critical’ – (David Hughes not Dylan Thomas!)”

  1. musingsofanewteacher May 12, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    I completely agree – it’s all about ambition and raising aspiration. This has to be coupled with a real programme of preparation though to be converted into a place. I discuss this on my most recent blog.

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