Higher education access

Elite universities protect privilege – but schools can break the barriers

Schools can help under-represented students break into the top universities and overcome imposter syndrome when they get there, write Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers

Schools can help under-represented students break into the top universities and overcome imposter syndrome when they get there, write Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers

14 Feb 2023, 15:35

When we think of elite universities, institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale come to mind. These universities are recognisable by their status, prestige and position in the league tables. They are highly sought after by students because they often lead to employment in well-paid, rewarding and powerful professions.

In our new book, Elite universities and the making of privilege, we found that elite universities are dominated by white, wealthy students who have attended private fee-paying schools. While state school students, working-class students and students of colour did attend these universities, they often expressed a sense of ‘imposter syndrome’. They did not feel a sense of belonging.

Many students from under-represented backgrounds have aspirations to attend elite universities, but what can schools do to support them in this process? We outline the following mechanisms that can be used to ensure that such students at least have a chance to be included in the selection process.

Many students (and parents) are unaware of the different deadlines for applying to Oxford and Cambridge. The deadline is in October and not the usual January deadline for applications to other universities. Schools must ensure that pupils are aware of these deadlines. For many, just deciding to apply to Oxbridge can be a daunting decision. Unfortunately, they have less rather than more time to apply, so they need to be primed to do so well ahead of the beginning of the school year.

Students are often daunted by the prospect of having to write a personal statement. They have a limited amount of space (usually just over 500 words) to make a convincing case for admission. It is important that schools understand what makes a good personal statement and what does not, and to communicate those requirements to students. Personal statements should reflect students’ passion, knowledge and ambitions for their academic interests. If they are including extra-curricular activities these should be discussed in relation to their academic knowledge.

They protect the interests of white, wealthy students

Schools should direct students to university websites, particularly those of Oxford and Cambridge, which give excellent tips on how to write engaging and compelling personal statements. They need to direct pupils to these sites as early as possible so they can acquire knowledge of the mindset elite universities associate with successful students. In private, fee-paying schools knowledge about the Oxbridge system is commonplace amongst parents and teachers. For many state schools this is not the case; teachers need to build in time to bridge that gap.

Interviews are no longer commonly used by most universities, but they remain important for  elite universities. In the interview, students need to think on their feet and demonstrate their ability to play an academic game. Again, these are skills that are more likely to be fostered in private schools than in over-worked, under-resourced, curriculum-focused state schools. But again it is possible to bridge these gaps. Establishing debating forums and encouraging pupils to think and argue outside the box is one effective way to imbue language and reasoning skills. It is also worth seeking out parents who have a feel for the Oxbridge admissions process to conduct mock interviews with pupils.

In writing this article, we are very aware elite universities remain spaces of privilege in which the interests of white, wealthy, privately-educated students are protected. Many pupils also recognise this and choose not to apply, fearing they will never be happy in such environments. Elite universities may yet become genuine spaces of inclusion for all students, but right now it would be remiss not to acknowledge such pressures act as deterrents.

We also know that many state schools have excellent records of supporting pupils to gain admission. Despite all the downsides, elite universities offer exceptional, life-changing opportunities. Even if the universities themselves are resistant, as teachers and educators it is important that we still encourage all pupils, from all backgrounds, to take their rightful places.

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