Brighten Youth Education Centre



Is Oxbridge entry process fair?


Every year, throughout the year, newspapers return to the subject of how apparently unfair and mystifying the Oxbridge admissions process is.

They decry the fact that so many pupils still come from privately educated schools, and they mock seemingly "impossible" interview questions.

Without doubt, these elite universities are doing more than ever to make the admissions process more transparent and accessible, but are they doing enough?

The Sutton Trust, a British charity that champions social mobility in education, argues that Oxbridge admissions are "complex and intimidating" for those not familiar with the process (

Their report stated that many bright students from government or struggling schools were put off from applying because of the seeming complexity of the process.

One contributing factor to this claim was the need for students to take complete different interviews, tests and assessments depending on which course and college they were applying to. As a result, the trust argued that it should be the university and not colleges that control the admissions process, and that more should be done towards "contextual admission."

The student with excellent grades from an underachieving school has probably fought a harder battle than the privately educated and tutor-driven candidate. The universities, in turn, claimed that the trust was perpetuating "common myths" and making "unjustified criticisms."

Mike Nicholson, former director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford, said in 2013 that the admissions system was designed to filter out "thick rich" kids and allow admission based on academic merit alone.

He also claimed that many of those admitted a generation ago would struggle to gain a place now. In order to ensure that the university selects the best candidates irrespective of social background, about 90 percent of those applying now sit a subject specific test.

Despite the fact that Oxford spends at least 3 million (HK$34 million) on outreach and another 8 million on bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds, few of these benefits are available for international students - so the assumption is that the vast majority of those coming from overseas are from relatively affluent backgrounds.

Universities, for their part, do want the brightest candidates, and they don't care where they are from. The battle for international students is always going to be harder because universities, courses and colleges are limited to the number of international students they can accept. Otherwise, why not benefit from the significantly higher tuition fees international students bring?

The hardest battle of all is still being fought by the 2 percent of students admitted who come from struggling government schools. The barriers to higher education, in Hong Kong and overseas are complex, interlinked and nuanced, and it is a subject we shall be returning to next week.


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