Go on, take a punt on Oxbridge

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
FE students are being urged to apply to the top. Joseph Lee reports

The students have all heard scare stories about interviews in front of inscrutable dons at Cambridge university.

But here in east London, the roles are reversed. Sue Long and Nikhil Gomes, access officers at the university, are in front of a roomful of cynical, world-weary teenagers pleading their case that Cambridge is open to all.

The students' scepticism may be justified: FE colleges provide a tiny percentage of applicants to Cambridge.

Figures published this week show that college students formed just 2.8 per cent of the applicants in 2005 and only 2.3 per cent of the total admissions.

By contrast, colleges produce about 45 per cent of all A-level students in the country.

The access officers' visit to Newham college, which serves one of the most deprived and ethnically varied parts of the country, is an attempt to redress the balance. It is part of a project which began five years ago to encourage more applicants from further education to the 29 colleges at Britain's second-oldest university.

This year, the efforts are being redoubled. Already this academic year, they have spoken to more than 1,000 students.

And for the first time, the university will be measuring how successful it has been in encouraging FE applications by tracking the students from the time they receive a visit like this, through applications to interview.

These measures are accompanied by open days designed for FE students and mature students. Oxford makes similar efforts and the two universities run several events jointly.

But with more than four applicants for every one of the 3,350 undergraduate places - odds which will only get longer if they succeed in attracting more from colleges - students run a great risk of failure.

Mr Gomes, who is responsible for encouraging ethnic-minority applicants, said: "We do say that the likelihood is that you won't get an offer.

Cambridge isn't the only university in the country. It's not even the only one in Cambridge. We are trying to raise people's aspirations, but they might decide to apply somewhere else."

The access officers have to tread cautiously when selling the university as a modern, egalitarian institution which judges everyone on their merits, while simultaneously hoping that a string of failed applicants will not undo their work for the following year.

"Normally we get someone who says, my mother's friend's milkman's son said they had a horrible experience and never wanted to set foot there again,"

Ms Long said.

"Very slow to come forward are the people who have had a positive experience - they're slow to be reported. We are trying to encourage more people from FE and more ethnic minorities. But if they don't apply, we can't help them. We try to encourage, but not to raise false hopes."

Several students were impressed by the reassurance offered. Word of mouth played its part: those who had relatives already studying at the university were more likely to believe that it was open to all than those who knew people who had been rejected.

Two Muslim students said they might be interested in applying, but they were worried that they might not be able to practise their religion at the university. (Their fears are unfounded - the university's Islamic society details everything from prayer rooms to halal takeaways.) Others are concerned that the university might look down on GCSE-level qualifications from Lithuania or Pakistan.

But some students were cynical about the university which will be difficult to overcome.

As 19-year-old Ibinabo Braide, who hopes to become a computer engineer, put it: "We know a lot of people who get four As and still get rejected. We have to go the extra mile to convince the interviewer that we are not what they think we are.

"They are trying to increase the applications from colleges, but people apply and they don't get in."

The access officers are hopeful about winning over even the most sceptical.

They also report signs of changing attitudes in the university. Ms Long said one Cambridge admission officer was starting to see an FE background as a distinct advantage. "He told me that FE students were the most interesting applicants he had interviewed at the last round because of their diversity and because they are not being spoon-fed answers."

She finished with a plea: "It's important that some of you do apply, because you will be a real asset to Cambridge university."

A young voice piped up at the back of the room: "I think so too."

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