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“Free year” at Cambridge: rectifying educational inequality?

Cambridge University has recently announced a fundraising initiative to set up a transition programme, aimed at making the university more accessible to disadvantaged students who have faced “educational challenge”. The campaign hopes to raise £500m, which will be put towards providing the option for some talented applicants to attend a free, transitional year of study at Cambridge before embarking on the usual three to four-year degrees offered there.

Access to elite universities has long been highlighted as a key factor in inhibiting social mobility. If all the elite jobs are taken by graduates from the top universities, and if they are disproportionately filled with wealthy, white students, then what hope is there for creating a society where success is blind to factors such as race and socio-economic status?

Inequality can come in many different flavours – race, family wealth and fee-paying status of one’s school, to name but three – and all can impact educational attainment in direct ways. It is therefore surely to its credit that Cambridge’s plan is aimed at getting underneath the various factors that can lead to promising students being put at an educational disadvantage. The proposed programme is focused directly on encouraging and supporting such students in the application process.

If the scheme is successful in its goals, it is also highly likely to address certain troubling statistics directly. For example, only 2.2% of Cambridge’s 2017 intake was of black ethnic origin, as compared to 3.3% of the UK population being Black. However, the admissions figures for Black applicants were representative of the proportion of Black students achieving three ‘A’s at A-level. An attempt to make admission to Cambridge less dependent on strict meeting of non-contextualised grade targets should therefore make Cambridge more accessible to those from backgrounds in which A-level success is less common.

However, it does seem as though efforts to rectify educational inequality at the university admission stage may be a clear case of treating the symptoms as opposed to the root cause. Though preferable to no action, this initiative may simply paper over the problems inherent in any educational system that has a two-tier quality to it; namely, the private/state school split. Focusing our efforts on making sure all schools offer a high-quality education would surely do far more to ensure a level playing field in terms of university admissions. In general, I would argue that each pound we spend towards combating educational inequality goes further, the further ‘upstream’, i.e. the younger the target demographic, we spend it.

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