Oxbridge universities should drop their opposition to social engineering and follow US universities in aiming for a better social and ethnic mix of students, says a report out today.
The two universities admit more students from independent schools than they should, according to the study by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi). It says they should follow the example of leading universities in the US, which have vowed to try to recruit more students from urban backgrounds who excel in poorer performing schools.
Research has shown that these students often do better than their peers from more affluent backgrounds when it comes to degree passes. The move could help improve the universities' degree results, the study indicates. At present, Cambridge is in fifth place for the percentage of students leaving with a first-class honours degree.
Bahram Bekhradnia, the director of Hepi, said: "There is some evidence to suggest that Oxford and Cambridge admit more independent school pupils than is warranted and that their insistence that they will not engage in social engineering but will make decisions about admissions on purely academic grounds leaves them vulnerable to the charge of social elitism. There seems no reason why Oxford and Cambridge should not take a leaf out of the book of some of the great American universities which are explicit that they have to achieve the best social and ethnic mix they can whilst always insisting on the highest academic standards."
Latest figures show that 57 per cent of the entrants to Oxford and Cambridge come from state schools but the number was higher for the rest of the Russell Group, which represents 20 of the UK's leading research institutions, at 75.7 per cent.
The report also says that, despite admitting far more students with A-level scores above 480 (the equivalent of four As at A-level), they do not corner the market in first-class degree passes. Oxford does have the highest level at 25 per cent of all students but is not significantly ahead of Imperial College with 24 per cent. Cambridge lags behind Imperial, Warwick and the London School of Economics at 21 per cent.
"In terms of the outcome for their students, Oxford and Cambridge do not appear to be distinctive in terms of degree results," it says. "It is perhaps surprising that the two universities do not outperform the rest of our sector on this measure, given the higher prior achievements of their students on entry."Reuse content