Oxbridge must ’tilt system’ for more state students, Zahawi disagrees

LONDON (Parliament Politics Magazine) – The education minister has slammed the suggestion that prestigious universities like Cambridge and Oxford should bend the system to admit more students from public schools.

Admissions should be based on merit, according to Nadhim Zahawi, and the focus should be on delivering more exceptional schools.

Prof Stephen Toope, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, recently informed private schools that they should expect fewer students to apply to Oxbridge in the future.

Instead of telling students from private schools “we don’t want you,” Toope said the institution would “welcome others.”

However, Zahawi stated that it was the government’s responsibility to close the achievement gap between the public and private sectors by improving the quality of public schools.

“I believe it should be based on merit and evidence,” Zahawi told the Times, referring to Boris Johnson’s cabinet overhaul in 2021.

What must be done was provide excellent outcomes for all children, regardless of where they resided, and especially for their most vulnerable children.  That was why he was bending the system in favour of areas with fewer exceptional or good, outstanding schools.

You didn’t build a system that people believed was fair and equal by assuming there was a quick fix. The best thing that could be done was build state-run schools that were as good as private institutions. That they were.

He needed to keep going in order to deliver more exceptional and high-performing schools.  That was the correct approach. Let him simply accept that they were not going to produce exceptional schools, therefore let him just tilt the system away from students who were performing, he said.

Zahawi told the newspaper that he wanted private schools to work more closely with public schools, citing Eton College’s plans to open three state sixth forms in Dudley, Oldham, and Middlesbrough to help students get admission to Oxbridge.

They would provide fantastic outcomes for every child if they all put their tribalism aside and looked at the evidence, he stated. If they achieved that, and he could show that he had done his job properly for the next two and a half years, they would have made a meaningful impact in the lives of children across the country.

Toope told the Times in May that his university would have to keep making it very, very clear that it intended to decrease over time the number of people who came from independent school backgrounds into institutions like Oxford or Cambridge, he said.

 They would want exceptional individual students, but they would be competing against an ever-larger pool because there were more students coming from public schools who envision a place for themselves at Cambridge or Oxford or other Russell Group universities, he added.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister at the time, said that it was absolutely vital that young people with the will and talent went into higher education, including the very finest universities, but that was only part of the challenge.  It was about ensuring that they finished those courses.