Myths abound about admission to Cambridge, despite all attempts to put out some real hard facts (and similarly by Oxford). The interview process itself, which both universities use, seems to be shrouded in particular mystique. Cambridge has recently posted a new video to try to flesh out the reality of what it really is like; Oxford has put out some typical questions for a similar purpose. Fundamentally, interviews are not designed to trip candidates up but to draw them out. But anyhow the interview is not the be-all and end-all of the process and solid numbers and facts – rather than the perhaps slightly subjective feel of the interview or even the text of the personal statement – is at the bottom of decision-making (see a description of the Cambridge process from 2012 here). Objective measures such as AS level marks (particularly important for Cambridge) and comments from the school about the standing of the individual relative to the cohort count for a lot. This is the reason why Cambridge is so concerned about recent government decisions that will mean in the future marks from AS levels will no longer be available to college decision-makers. The background of the school and the average A level scores it gains are also important and admissions tutors will have extensive experience on this front.
People, particularly the media, love to hate Cambridge it seems to me. Whilst simultaneously berating the institutions for not doing enough to broaden access and widen participation, anyone who attends the universities is instantly branded as ‘elite’ or ‘a toff’. If someone from a tough comprehensive is admitted, as soon as they leave and enter the workforce their original pedigree is instantly eradicated, over-written as ‘merely’ Cambridge and therefore in some way suspected of being privileged. Churchill College, my new home, indeed has a proud record of admitting students from the state sector, with amongst the highest proportion of such students in the Cambridge colleges. But that isn’t to say it has admissions completely sorted; consequently I have been keen to look into our admissions in some detail.
We, as a college, may do well on the state sector front (admitting ca 70% of our students from such schools) but we have a problem around gender which needs further investigation. To some extent the problem is obvious: by statute we admit 70% of students in the science and engineering disciplines and, as I have frequently written about before, girls are woefully under-represented in subjects like Physics at A level. Churchill cannot admit girls to read engineering, for instance, if they haven’t taken that subject at A level. Superficially, the low numbers of girls we admit (ca 35%) can be explained away like this.
But that is an inadequate explanation overall for the low number of girls, as it turns out our applications are not always in line with the university average. Cambridge overall actually does well in comparison with the average applying through UCAS when it comes to girls reading engineering (nearly twice as well in fact, with 23.2 compared with 12.7%), but Churchill not only doesn’t match this figure it doesn’t see a conversion from applications into girls who go on to meet their offer. So, we have a dispiritingly low number of women studying engineering. We have disappointingly low numbers in maths too, but here Cambridge overall is way below the typical numbers in other universities. This last point is something that the university collectively has to look into, but the former is a problem for my college and we are actively seeking ways to improve the situation, for instance through the information we put out on the web and making sure our open days prove as attractive to girls as to boys.
But there are some other anomalies across the university which many admissions tutors are wrestling with. I have written previously about the challenge in subjects like Veterinary Science. Nationally this is strongly female-dominated with a UCAS percentage of applications of around 75% quoted. At Cambridge this figure is slightly lower, though not significantly so, and in Churchill it is lower still. Does this mean we are doing a good job of encouraging the minority, in this case boys, or does it mean that the college is actually unintentionally disfavouring girls? Questions such as these become very tricky to answer but need to be kept constantly in mind and apply to several different subjects.
Of course gender is not the only facet of diversity and one should be looking at all the other aspects too: amongst others, ethnic origin and socioeconomic background. The latter is hard to get at (socio-economic classifications are often based on out-of-date information and involve value-judgements) and information on it is not included on UCAS forms, but it is clearly central to widening participation (WP) in general. Suffice it to say that all Cambridge colleges put a lot of effort into WP, sending people into traditionally low-attainment schools in order to try to raise aspirations and convince them that, if they’re outstanding students they would enjoy and benefit from what we have to offer. At what age you need to start doing this is a difficult question, but almost certainly aspiration-raising should begin by the start of secondary school. If teachers and parents don’t encourage children to aim high, or worse actively discourage those who do aspire, it is very hard for any university to overturn such attitudes. Organisations such as IntoUniversity do try, as do the college admissions tutors, but it is a big ask.
Overall there is no evidence that BME (black and minority ethnic) applicants are disadvantaged by the university, but that high level figure may mask large differences between those applying from different backgrounds. (In UCAS ethnicity is self-defined and disclosure is naturally voluntary. This is another area of background information that is not available to universities at point of selection.) As the recent Royal Society diversity report on the scientific workforce indicated, the situation is extremely complicated when it comes to different ethnicities and, for a single college it is all but impossible to disentangle any significant effects because the numbers are so small. This isn’t an excuse not to try, and most certainly everyone is aware of the issues, but it is a challenge to make much sense of the numbers.
As the incoming Master of Churchill, with my prior track record around gender issues, I am very conscious the fellowship is looking to me to help to improve the numbers of girls applying to the college. Currently the figure on applications stands at around 25% girls, so our actual intake shows our focus on ability means we are certainly not disadvantaging them. Nevertheless, we need to increase the applications from girls in the first place. There seems to be a tremendous will to work on all aspects of admissions to translate this goal into effective strategies. The first task was inevitably to gather the evidence; this has already been done. Now we just have to implement actions that translate the will into improvements year by year. This will take longer! But whatever we do, once a candidate applies the college will always stick with the emphasis of looking objectively at the numbers (AS grades, school averages, GCSE scores etc) and not rely significantly on subjective measures as to whether an individual looks ‘right’ for Cambridge. That latter sort of action may be part of the mythology but it is not the reality of Cambridge admissions.