Recently we heard again of the North-South divide that dominates educational opportunities in England. Data obtained by the Guardian via a freedom of information request suggests that 30% of the candidates admitted to Oxford and Cambridge in 2012 came from just ten Local Education Authorities (LEAs) – all of which are in the country’s south-east. Geography, concludes the newspaper’s Richard Adams, needs to be added to “complex mix of race, sex, social background and school that have dogged admissions to the UK’s elite institutions.”
These figures point to the unequal structures that shape and condition access to higher education in Britain. Good schools, clustered near the global metropolis of London, and attended by members of the urban middle classes with their financial and cultural capital, offer students significantly better chances of admission to the nation’s elite universities.
But the data obtained by The Guardian excludes another group of students who constitute an important source of Oxbridge admissions – those from abroad. Indeed, the figures used by the newspaper do not even include applications from students in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Putting overseas applicants into the mix casts a slightly different light on what Alex Niven has called Britain’s “geographical apartheid”.
The Oxford University Malaysia Club reports that in 2012, 176 Malaysians applied to Oxford and 269 to Cambridge for undergraduate study, with 20 accepted by Oxford and 31 by Cambridge. That places Malaysia ahead of 139 other LEAs in England and Wales in terms of number of Oxbridge offers made. At Cambridge 12.4% of undergraduate places are filled by students from outside the UK, making “Overseas” the second largest feeder region, behind Greater London at 14.2%. Meanwhile, Oxford’s website suggests that 14% of its undergraduates come from foreign countries. And in this, Oxford and Cambridge are by no means alone. Data obtained under freedom of information shows that in 2011, 23% of undergraduate entrants to the University of Manchester were from outside the UK.
Such figures remind us that Britain’s leading universities do not just operate within a national educational context. As the international league tables - not to mention countless university publicity departments - repeatedly tell us, they are institutions whose constituencies reach out across the world.
This is not a new phenomenon and it is not in itself a bad thing. Even in the period of 19th century “Victorian globalisation” about 10% of the student intake at Oxford and Cambridge (and more at London and Edinburgh) came from abroad. And their numbers have grown ever since. The presence of international students has immeasurably enhanced these British universities, the education they offer, and the economy and culture of the entire country.
But the global landscape of higher education is just as unequal as that within Britain. Those students who are best placed to navigate its uneven contours are those who, financially and culturally, benefit from the global economy, be they from Greater London, Shanghai or Delhi.
The unequal educational opportunities produced at the intersection of gender, race and class do not just operate on a national scale. Universities like Oxford and Cambridge seek to recruit students from a relatively small pool of gifted and well-resourced students, who are to be found in schools across the world.
Efforts to redress domestic inequalities are vital. But as we undertake them we need to ask careful questions about the extent to which our top universities contribute to and benefit from an educational apartheid that extends across the globe.