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AIBU?

That it used to be easier to get to Cambridge or Oxford than it is now??

270 replies

countingdownagain · 01/10/2022 17:35

I know a few people that went to Oxbridge in the 70/80s that I struggle to imagine they'd have a hope of getting in today.

It strikes me that it if you were male, fairly well spoken, it was much easier to get in than it would be now??

OP posts:
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EffortlessDesmond · 11/02/2023 20:55

Returning to normative marking would clarify the quality of degree, instantly. And restore confidence. But it won't happen because an awful lot of universities need to fill all the places that have been created.

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TwilightSilhouette · 11/02/2023 20:57

There are employers who avoid Oxbridge gradual they view them as too academic and not very good in actual jobs.

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EffortlessDesmond · 11/02/2023 21:03

There are employers who actively prefer apprentice qualified candidates too. DH, small engineering business, reckons that graduate engineers understand all the theory, but could not actually make physically anything that would do the work it was designed to do, even copying a Victorian pump.

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allswellthatends · 12/02/2023 01:26

Haven't RTFT. But as both I and my husband, and our eldest child, are all Oxbridge, feel I can add some facts, hopefully without too much opinion!

DH went to one of the top four public schools as did his father and grandfather. He finished school, including an extra term of "Oxbridge" term as was then allowed, with three A-levels of B, C, and D. Got into Oxford with, as he does not fail to point out, the help of his main private school former-Oxford tutor calling his friends in the Oxford college. A college where his father and grandfather also went.

We met in the same college, studying the same subject, where I entered the same year, having lived just two years in an English-speaking country, child of two asylum-seekers. I was a full year younger than him and had 3 A's at A-level in a state school, where the one teacher in charge of university entrance had previously told me not to bother applying to Oxbridge.

BUT both my parents, before having to flee our home country, had been university professors and we were all very intellectual. DH's parents were and are positively anti-intellectual. They still think it's embarrassing the way I have books all over the house.

In case you're wondering, yes, I did feel very out of place back then, especially in my first year at Oxford. DH even now admits freely that it was absurd he was admitted at all, and says that he would never have got in without the personal pull of his public school tutor and his father's and grandfather's having been there. He tells everyone I'm brighter than him, which is frankly annoying, especially as he earns 5x more than me. Both of us grew very close to classmates whom we still see often and who DO sometimes tap us for contacts when changing jobs. None of that is a myth, I promise you, though it's not that anyone just walks into a job through connections; but at least they know where to apply and what to say.

Of our children, the eldest got into Cambridge, after refusing to try and carry on (compete with) the family tradition at Oxford. He attended one of the top four public schools, but not the one his father and so on went to. His offer from the Cambridge college required him to get 3 x A at A-level; he got four A. He was surprised to arrive and find himself with classmates who in some cases had got in with, say, 3 x B or even Cs. But as time passed, learned that they were not necessarily more stupid than he is. That alone, to me, justifies mixing the class groupings.

DS2 has SN and will not go to uni at all. DD didn't get into Oxford on A*AA, but has after all gone to a uni that is not only Russell Group but indeed generally agreed to be in the top 10 worldwide in English-speaking countries. Bear in mind that Oxbridge put a lot of emphasis on the interview, not just A-levels, and she is just not as confident in interviews as her older brother. And yes, I do think being female plays a real role here.

Summary? In a way, yes, it's harder to get in to Oxbridge now -- if you form part of that hereditary lucky class of men. I don't know if it's easier if you're not part of that insider group.

What I personally think is really unacceptable here in the UK is the vast gap in quality of education between Oxbridge and the rest of the universities -- including Russell Group. At Oxbridge teaching is almost entirely tutorial-based, so 1-to-1 or at most 1-to-3, face to face (apart from the pandemic), with lectures an add-on. You are more or less guaranteed to live in beautiful medieval or at least 18th century buildings all three years, with gardens. Many big companies will still automatically screen out all CVs from non-Oxbridge candidates, even if they got a First. To give you an idea, insiders still routinely ask, not which university you went to, but which college.

What most hits me about this, looking at the experience of my own children and friends' children, is how stark the difference is between Oxbridge and other universities. I think it comes down to funding as well as assumptions. Individual Oxbridge colleges have vast historical "foundations" ie money, even when the universities don't: and the colleges tend to put their funds where undergraduates benefit, while the university funds benefit graduate students. Other universities, even the best, get much of their funding from the government, and rely to a dismaying degree on taking foreign students paying higher fees. Students seem to learn mainly through large lecture halls with virtually no individual attention.

Even the best non-Oxbridge universities do not have the buildings and the space for full housing. The students have to find scattered places to live for one or more of their years, and sometimes part-time jobs, and don't have the time and money for clubs from sporting blues to the college newspaper to the Oxford Union. The Oxford Union, by the way, and the Oxford Conservative club, directly generated most of our current politicians and certainly ALL of the current Tory lot. Honestly, I look at DS1's experience and DD's experience and I grind my teeth -- and let's not even go into the help that my disabled DS2 gets. Then once you leave Oxbridge, everyone just assumes you must be good, even if you only got a 2:2.

Is a 2:2 student from Oxbridge really better than a 1st from St Andrews? I don't know. But ultimatelyI'd say the real problem is that it's time to do something about the huge quality gap, real and perceived. It's not enough to make sure a handful of the less privileged kids get in to Oxbridge, or that many more get in to university overall. Do something about the huge gap between any Oxbridge college and any other university! And what about all the people going into trades like carpentry and plumbing, which will never be replaced by Artificial Intelligence or outsourced to India?

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allswellthatends · 12/02/2023 01:29

I see that Mumsnet's system has turned DS1's A* into boldfacing.
To be clear, he was required to get 3; he got 4. So not dumb, to be fair to him. But even he would say easier done from his school from down-the-road underfunded state sink school.

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allswellthatends · 12/02/2023 01:37

And DD actually got AAA. Honestly, I may have been Oxbridge but Mumsnet formatting is too much for me.
TL:DR? My point is, we have all learned in the course of our long lives that Oxbridge isn't the only ruler against which anyone should measure themselves. (Though DH is definitely not as thick as he likes to pretend. That's a British thing, I think, boasting by being over-modest?)

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allswellthatends · 12/02/2023 01:38

Aaaahhhh -- DD got A star A star A and didn't get in to Oxbridge. I promise you this is Mumsnet formatting not me being too thick to understand Mumsnet formatting!!!! Though why am I thick enough to think it's relevant to say that those A-levels are no longer guaranteed admission to Oxbridge?

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allswellthatends · 12/02/2023 02:02

Obviously now it's late at night AND I am drip-feeding, but it belatedly occurs to me to point out: as far as DH goes, as an adult he clearly has both quite severe dyslexia and ADD (not ADHD). Neither of these was diagnosed in his school years when they should have been, despite his extremely posh education; and whatever he says, I assure you he is far more competent in the real world than I am.
So that's another thing: nowadays, someone with his disabilities, which are hardly un-obvious, would have got a lot more help. Think of that when you think on his A-level results. (Besides the fact that the A* grade, which Mumsnet turns into boldfacing if there are multiples, didn't exist in our time.)

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RosesAndHellebores · 12/02/2023 07:40

That all sounds very complicated @allswellthatends.

DH went to Oxford with 4A's in 1979 from the local comp. I decided the DC should have the best crack at being happy and rounded so read to them, played music, built sandcastles, went rock pooling and leaf kicking, etc. Got them into the best schools we could. DS took his first degree from Oxford; his PhD from Cambridge. (44 IB points). DD took her first degree from Cambridge (3 x A star and grade 8 voice).

I dropped out of a red brick in 1978.

The most important thing is a love of learning and encouragement overlaid with happiness. I wouldn’t have given a toss which uni's my DC went to providing they were happy. DH and the DC know plenty of unhappy people from Oxbridge days who aren't achieving aa they should.

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CTRALTDEL · 12/02/2023 07:46

Not for poor kids it wasn’t. I was begrudgingly offered a place after much fuss and support from school and a particular teacher despite not being ‘rounded’ enough.
My grades were As, I had amazing work ethic but as a WC, young carer I didn’t play an instrument, I hadn’t travelled, never been on holiday never mind skiing, I didn’t have. Duke of Edinburgh. I was from a poor region of the U.K. and had never been to the theatre or a concert or any of that.

I turned it down and went to Uni that actually wanted me, on scholarship, after being told there was no way I could have a job and study there too. I don’t know what they expected me to live on, air? mad it was I still had to support myself even with the scholarship.
it’s only been ‘fair’ for certain types TBH.

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Sindonym · 12/02/2023 07:53

DH and the DC know plenty of unhappy people from Oxbridge days who aren't achieving aa they should.

@RosesAndHellebores I’m interested in how someone with an Oxbridge degree ‘should’ achieve. University is just 3/4 years of someone’s life. Usually when they are young & life is still unfolding. Who defines ‘success’ or which achievements are worthy?

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RosesAndHellebores · 12/02/2023 07:59

@Sindonym I think you missed the point about happy.

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Fairislefandango · 12/02/2023 08:06

DH and the DC know plenty of unhappy people from Oxbridge days who aren't achieving aa they should.

What an odd comment. How 'should' anyone achieve? People should apply to Oxbridge if they want to, if the place and the course appeal to them, and if they are academically up to it. Why should that place any onus on them to go for a high-powered career or earn lots of money? Personally, I view value education, study and academic curiosity and achievement as an end in their own right.

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Somethingvague · 12/02/2023 08:24

My Dad went to Oxford in the 70s - intelligent but definitely not with all the expected extras nowadays, and with a number of mental health issues. He went to a northern royal grammar school that I believe had a quota of students every year who went to Oxbridge.

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Sindonym · 12/02/2023 08:26

But happy & achievement aren’t the same @RosesAndHellebores

Agree 100% with @Fairislefandango

That was something that puzzled me about Oxford. A lot of people there (especially those with a family history of attending followed by lucrative career) seemed to see it only as a step towards a highly paid career. They didn’t value the education. Some of that is being young (I really had no idea what opportunities I was missing out on whilst sat in the pub) but some of it was because the interest was in the money afterwards, not the education itself. I hope that with wider access it becomes less of a finishing school for the wealthy tbh and more about education (& let’s not confuse education with exams).

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Ethelswith · 12/02/2023 08:31

Opposite

If you went to the right kind of school, then it was easier - because they had separate exams (January) and private schools used to offer a seventh term of sixth form to prep for them.

State schools candidates sat them after 4 terms, not 7, and had far fewer offers.

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snowsjoke · 12/02/2023 13:30

@allswellthatends one of your earlier posts resonates with our experience this far. We don't have the contextual markers to be offered the very good support that is out there to apply to Oxbridge. The system is so convoluted for 'ordinary' candidates that it actually puts perfectly good applicants off. We have been watching some admissions video's and ds can't really relate to people who say things like 'it's all super fun'. They're from a different background - not their or his fault! I can't help thinking that it is a secret club - there are families here on Mumsnet that have several kids that get in (I think one person has 6 children go through Oxbridge!). They are in the 'know' somehow or have a cultural capital advantage. Could that be a private school background, professional parents etc? It's a bit of a mystery.

Ds will try (predicted 4 A stars) but we're not holding out much hope.

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carben · 12/02/2023 14:24

snowsjoke · 12/02/2023 13:30

@allswellthatends one of your earlier posts resonates with our experience this far. We don't have the contextual markers to be offered the very good support that is out there to apply to Oxbridge. The system is so convoluted for 'ordinary' candidates that it actually puts perfectly good applicants off. We have been watching some admissions video's and ds can't really relate to people who say things like 'it's all super fun'. They're from a different background - not their or his fault! I can't help thinking that it is a secret club - there are families here on Mumsnet that have several kids that get in (I think one person has 6 children go through Oxbridge!). They are in the 'know' somehow or have a cultural capital advantage. Could that be a private school background, professional parents etc? It's a bit of a mystery.

Ds will try (predicted 4 A stars) but we're not holding out much hope.

Snowsjoke - my daughter is in her first year and was offered a place under the Opportunity Oxford initiative for contextual reasons. From a very ordinary non selective comp which most people decide to escape from for Sixth Form. Which is exactly what her twin brother did do after Year 11.

Oxford was never mentioned once by her or the school until a phone call from her maths teacher towards the end of Year 12. Much angst about whether to bother because of the earlier entry to UCAS and the very slim chance of getting in. Not to mention being terrified of an interview. Decided she had nothing to lose because she had 4 other opportunities to get in somewhere.

From then I researched like mad - I knew next to nothing about Oxbridge. I firmly believed it was not for people like us. But the more I looked and read the more I realised that they are actively looking for and wanting the brightest kids no matter what their background. They are trying to look past the lack of polish to see the raw potential in kids especially the ones that are self motivated and achieving despite the odds.

She managed to get offered a place but not by any of the ones that interviewed her. She got 4xA stars and got her acceptance. In September she went on a 2 week residential at one of the colleges as part of Opp Oxford - all paid for plus pocket money, a couple of formals, seminars, lectures, books - all geared towards giving the kids a head start before October. She loved it - met loads of others in the same boat and completely got her Oxford bearings.

She is loving it all so far. No sign of imposter syndrome and coping with the work and the tutorial system. She even bought a bike.

I don't know if things have changed because I have no real idea what it was like before. I do believe though that if you are a bit of an outlier and are very bright then you have a chance and they will be actively looking to find you and once they have they will try to support you in making it a success.

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CTRALTDEL · 13/02/2023 10:31

going to the ‘right’ University impresses in certain circles and/or gives students access to people who have money, influence, connections…
i t can make a difference.
Even in my more ordinary Uni I had friends who’s parents owned holiday homes, multiple homes, had friends who ran big companies or worked in film/tv, finance and through them I got to do all sorts of stuff as their ‘guest’ that I’d never before experienced as a WC kid from an estate.

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CTRALTDEL · 13/02/2023 10:35

During one, frankly hilarious, convo with a guy who became a good friend we were talking about estates which turned surreal before we realised while I was talking about the stuff we got up to in my inner city council estate as kids HE was talking about the japes on his grandparents estate estate… it was when he starting talking about pheasants and deer that I realised we might be at cross purposes.
at the time he was using a mockney guy Ritchie accent on for size so I had t realised his family owned swathes of the British Isles…

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