Elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge don't have a good track record in taking mitigating circumstances into account. One Oxford history graduate tells me that even though it deemed her to have been ‘very seriously impacted’ by her home circumstances last year, the university declined to bump up her final grade enough – by 0.3 per cent – for her to enter her masters’ course. So what does count as a good enough excuse for missing your grades? Sitting your exams during a pandemic surely would – particularly if, like Soutiam Goodarzi, you’re a member of an underrepresented group that Oxbridge claims they want to uplift. Soutiam is a sixth former eligible for free school meals who, after being predicted a full set of As and A*s, had a place to read medicine at Oxford. She came to the UK with her mother from Iran when she was eleven; overcrowding in London meant she had to wait half a year to go to primary school. After waking up to her results – ABBB – on Thursday morning, her prospective Oxford college sent her a stock rejection email before she could defend her scores.
I spoke to another sixth former, Caitlin, who needed an A* and two As to study Geography at Keble college. She is the first person in her school’s history to win a spot at Oxbridge. Yesterday she received three As and still lost her place, despite assurances from director of admissions Samira Khan that ‘if we feel they [downgraded students] will flourish at Oxford, we will give them a place’. Caitlin’s school has not yet decided if it will appeal her grades, and points out that resitting her exams next year would come at a cost of at least £100 per paper. ‘Why was my background not considered to be difficult’, she asks, ‘given I’m a first generation student from a school that doesn’t historically send people to Oxbridge?’
This year, many extremely able students are slipping through the net. And anger towards Oxbridge is growing on social media, with #HonourTheOffer trending on Twitter. Caitlin started a petition yesterday calling on Oxford to reinstate offers for state school ‘near misses’, which now has nearly 1000 signatures. With interviews and admissions tests, Oxford and Cambridge hold extensive academic information on students aside from their GCSE and A Level results. An Oxford spokesperson says that ‘a wealth of information’ will be used to ‘select fairly those students of greatest potential who will thrive in their studies’. It’s hard to see how this matches up with what rejected offer-holders have to say.
Cambridge says that it has been ‘as flexible as [it] can’ in this year’s admissions process, ‘within the government restrictions on student numbers’. Oxford has been quick to say too that it can only help so many downgraded students while respecting the Department for Education’s guidelines, but a former students’ union employee tells me that colleges have considerable freedom over who they let in. ‘The ridiculous standardisation process has failed students who would thrive there’, he says. ‘Correcting these kinds of gross injustices is what clemency is for. Colleges must use their discretion over admissions if they want anyone to take their purported commitment to diversity seriously.’
Worcester college’s announcement yesterday that it would confirm the places of all UK offer holders, regardless of their A Level results, appears to prove him right. But will other colleges follow Worcester's lead? Stellar grades can open so many doors for bright teenagers in bad places. Oxford and Cambridge cannot reasonably believe that the massive downgrades we’re hearing stories of are the fault of students to whom A Levels mean so much.
Neither university ever misses an opportunity to peacock their steadily improving diversity figures. While an uptick in the number of BAME and low-income students at Oxbridge is commendable, these institutions must be more open minded when considering which downgraded students to offer a place. Many students whose grades have been slashed most dramatically have the most defendable mitigating circumstances. The pandemic has laid bare so many inequalities in the education young people receive – all of the progress made in the last few years will mean nothing if this year, the brightest disadvantaged students are made to meet the same standard as their most privileged peers.
Lauren Shirreff is a Spectator intern and editor of the Oxford Student