The Cambridge challenge

Cambridge University can be a daunting place for any state sector student to contemplate signing up for. Prince Phillip is its Chancellor, Newton, Darwin, Wordsworth and Oliver Cromwell all studied there - not to mention a certain Mr Ali G, albeit that he was plain simple Sacha Baron Cohen at the time.

Half the buildings are walk-in museums and you get shouted at if you walk on the grass without permission. And then there's all those super-confident public school types striding about the place talking posh at high volume.

If you come from an FE college - and only around 50 a year out of a total Cambridge undergraduate intake of more than 3,000 actually do - the whole experience might appear a bit of a challenge.

But then, a challenge is exactly what Sue Long, the university's FE access officer, says she has on offer. It's 10am in one of the 800-year-old university's newest teaching environments - the steel-and-glass Law Faculty building - and Sue is briefing around 100 hopefuls from FE colleges across Britain.

Their day, only the second the university has organised specifically for students from FE, is called a Challenge Day, and she's warning them to expect it to be, well, challenging. She's lined up a demanding programme of lectures in the science and humanities areas for them, plus a quiz to be completed in any spare moments.

The students are all together for the first session - an hour with Professor Peter Lipton, a specialist in the philosophy of science.

Professor Lipton, you can tell at once, is the sort of man who, when his wife asks him if he wants an egg for breakfast, tells her that depends on what she means by an egg.

In fact, the professor turns out to be a bit of a star turn. He treats us to a whistlestop tour of the four principal areas of philosophical enquiry and manages to be concise, erudite, illuminating and, at times, very funny.

He knows his audience too, stretching them without losing them and eliciting a range of intelligent responses.

Over lunch, in the churchy atmosphere of Corpus Christi College's buttery, Cambridge's head of widening participation, Lesley Gannon, tells me about her department's efforts to deepen the pool from which their undergraduates are drawn. She admits it's a tough job. Just under half of Cambridge's undergraduates still come from the independent schools, even though they represent under 10 per cent of the total schools sector. "It's slow," she says, "but most of our figures are moving in the right direction."

Further Education, she acknowledges, is hugely under-represented at the university, "But no matter how much outreach we do, you're still looking at three A's, two in academic subjects, and that's a barrier for some students."

In the afternoon, I head for Corpus Christi's McCrum lecture theatre and a literature session with lecturer Steve Watts. Here, we are introduced to the poetic intricacies of the iambic tetrameter - not very intricate at all: di da, di da, di da, di da, to you and me.

For our final "challenge" we are transported back to the first century AD for a bit of Christian martyrdom. New Testament theologian Jane McLarty tells us about Polycarp, who was burned alive by the Romans for his beliefs. According to his fellow Christians at the time, his was no ordinary burning, with the resulting aroma being "not like burning flesh, but baking bread - like wafting incense or some other precious perfume".

Once again, the students show they are up for it, asking questions and making contributions.

But, while they are clearly interested in what they've seen, the big question is, will they apply? Yes, says Josh Hill from Halesowen College near Birmingham. "At least," he says after a moment's thought, "I'll probably apply."

More definite is 19-year-old Michael Iremiren, who is studying A-level English, Psychology and Media at Thurrock and Basildon College in Essex. "I love it. I'm telling my mum to start saving up."

It's not so easy though for a group of mature students who've flown down for the day from Ayr College in south west Scotland. They, too, say the day has opened their eyes, but with commitments at home and lives centred around their locality, it's hard to contemplate uprooting. "Possibly in three years' time," says Helen Osborne, 32, who is studying for Scottish Highers. "I found it very interesting, but for now moving would be too hard for me."

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