In New Labour Britain - with its goal of excellence for all - are Oxbridge privileges threatened? Neil Sears reports
Cambridge University has denied reports that it is to increase dramatically the numbers of state-school entrants and that its admission policies will be linked to funding.
The long-smouldering debate about the proportion of Oxbridge students from independent schools reignited after the Government announced it is to review the Pounds 35 million supplementary funding Oxford and Cambridge receive.
Both universities said they would welcome more applicants from the state sector. However, neither has any major new plans to redress the balance between state and independent schools.
Currently Oxford and Cambridge receive an extra Pounds 2,000 per student to fund their costly one-to-one tutorial and collegiate systems. This funding regime has been criticised by Cambridge Labour MP Anne Campbell, who has called for Oxbridge colleges to have their fees varied according to the number of state-school pupils they admit.
Cambridge admissions officers met recently and discussed the imbalance between the numbers of state-school Cambridge entrants, and the number of students awarded three grade As at A-level. In 1996 68 per cent of those gaining three grade A A-levels attended state schools, and 32 per cent independent schools.
However in 1996, discounting the roughly 10 per cent made up by mature and overseas students, Cambridge's intake was 52 per cent state school, 48 per cent independent.
Low-budget schemes designed to encourage applications from relatively disadvantaged pupils have produced minimal results at both Oxford and Cambridge.
In 1991 the admissions split in Cambridge was strikingly familiar to today's: 50.5 per cent state, 49.5 per cent independent.
At Oxford the figures, again discounting the 10 per cent from elsewhere, are similar: in 1997 admissions were 47.5 per cent state, 52.5 per cent independent. In 1990 the split was 48 per cent state and 52 per cent independent.
Anne Newbould, administrative secretary of the Cambridge intercollegiate applications office, is unable to explain why the situation is so static. "There are many more people in the state sector getting good A-levels than apply, whereas in the independent sector anyone who has a chance applies.
"It's a black hole: we don't know why they aren't applying. But we don't want them to reject us because they think we're snobbish and elitist. That's a stereotype that no longer applies."
Mrs Newbould talks with pride of a student-run scheme, in which state-school undergraduates visit schools to encourage others to apply, and of the full-time officer employed to encourage more applications from ethnic minorities.
Aside from the possibility of an access officer to encourage state- school applications, however, there are no new ideas on the table - and no plans to enforce quotas for Cambridge's 28 colleges.
"We did not discuss setting targets - and it is very unlikely colleges would agree to them," said Mrs Newbould.
A lack of college and university commitment to tackling the issue partially explains the current impasse, according to Geoff Payne, currently vice-president of Oxford University Student Union, and last year's co-ordinator of Oxford's student-run target schools scheme.
"The university sometimes uses the target schools system as an excuse for the fact that it's not doing much itself on the problem," he said. "We'd like them to investigate what happens in the interview period - because so much happens behind closed doors."
He said working with state schools to encourage more applications was not always straightforward. "It is rather frustrating that the better schools come along to open days and book out large numbers of places. What we want is the schools that have such low expectations that they don't think it's worth applying, or the schools where some teachers think their pupils won't like it here. Some schools don't respond to our letters or say they don't think it's appropriate."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said the Higher Education Funding Council would make recommendations next month on the future funding of Oxbridge.
She added that the issue of widening access was unconnected and stressed that ministers had no authority to tell universities who to admit. The DFEE did not collate information on the stateindependent school mix at universities, she said.