Why NOT getting into Oxbridge can make, not break, students

Lots of universities can offer students the same as Oxbridge – or better. Not getting in isn't a failure, says Shaun Fenton

Shaun Fenton

Oxbridge, Oxford, Cambridge, university, Shaun Fenton

Anxious sixth-form students, and even more anxious parents, now know the outcome of their Oxford and Cambridge interviews.

Some of the best and brightest young people of their generation will hear that, for perhaps the first time in their life, they have "failed".

I applied to Oxford, failed, reapplied and was "lucky" second time around. As the first in my family to attend university, there is no doubt that attending Oxford changed my life chances and those of my family for generations to come.

A place won at Oxford or Cambridge is still, very much, a champagne moment in life.

But here’s the thing. Our ancient universities are still world class, but so are others in the UK and beyond, and there are more routes to success now than ever before.

Some other universities have different and (whisper it) sometimes more relevant strengths and offer more innovative courses in computer science, media technologies, art and design, to name but a few – but with real strength in traditional areas of study such as the sciences, history and creative subjects. Aerospace engineering, software development and industrial sciences…the options are growing and the subject titles signal their employability factor.   

Some students will take blue-chip degree apprenticeships where they learn, earn, acquire professional experience, get qualified and be debt free. This is an idea whose time is coming – and fast. At Reigate Grammar School, we have more parents attending briefings on degree apprenticeships than A-level subject choices. The spectre of their children being in debt for years to come is having a marked impact on parental attitudes to traditional degrees – "even" in the independent sector.

Others will head abroad to university, with Ivy League institutions such as Harvard and Yale proving the main draw. Many of the top names provide a level of financial support to students quite unlike anything available in the UK. And in mainland Europe, some Dutch, German and Nordic universities offer English-language teaching at a fraction of the cost of our £9,000 tuition fees.

Students who choose to study overseas benefit from a double-whammy of living in a new country as well as studying for a degree. What employer could fail to be impressed by such a display of enterprise and resilience in a young person?

But how to choose? The routes are many, but remember: the best option is the best fit for the individual young person.

And remember that personal qualities, what we sometimes call character, will always have a far bigger impact on life chances than A-level grades, university or degree class.

What of those that have "failed"?

It is true but perhaps a bit glib to say that they will learn that failure is part of life’s journey and develops important qualities of character. I remember my personal feelings of doubt and sadness when I didn’t get in to Oxford the first time around. And although I certainly didn’t plan it, I think I appreciated the offer I received the second time around. (Thank you to David Lyndsay, my inspirational teacher at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School who helped me learn, but more importantly, to believe in myself.)

But we can be kinder than saying how good it is to learn from failure: while we help to celebrate the achievement of those who have succeeded, we can encourage, support and re-focus those who didn’t. That is what David Lyndsay did for me and I still feel that I owe him a debt to this day. What he taught me about myself was, frankly, more important than anything I learned from the syllabus.

There is no doubt that among those who Oxbridge have opted to turn down are young people who will go on to become inspiring poets, ground-breaking scientists and engineers, a future prime minister or three, great authors and artists, doctors, architects and wealth creators.

You may know someone just like that: spare a thought for them.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Shaun Fenton

Shaun Fenton is head of Reigate Grammar School and chair of HMC

Latest stories