Earlier Oxbridge applications create new obstacle for poorer students, say experts | Higher education

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Cambridge and Oxford universities may be putting “new obstacles” in the way of poorer applicants by making students apply two weeks earlier than usual for some of their most competitive courses, experts have warned.

The race for a place at Oxbridge traditionally starts sooner than for any other universities, with sixth formers expected to submit their Ucas application forms by 15 October, rather than 25 January for most courses. This year, however, Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing (Caat), which runs admissions tests for some of the most popular courses at both universities, has brought forward the date to register for its tests by two weeks to the end of September. Cambridge applicants who have to sit these tests, which are a crucial part of the selection process, will also sit them earlier in October than usual.

Some fear that giving students just a few weeks after returning from their summer holidays to take the leap and apply for these ultra-competitive universities could mean some pupils at state schools not focused on sending pupils to Oxbridge will miss the boat.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, said: “In this increasingly competitive race for degree places, we must be absolutely sure we are not inadvertently creating new obstacles for disadvantaged students who already face an unlevel playing field in so many ways.”

Dr Rohan Agarwal, founder of UniAdmissions, a commercial tutoring service that supports students applying to Oxbridge, said: “We are having people contact us who are panicking. I really do feel for these students, especially the ones who haven’t had good advice from their school.”

Students have to sit Caat tests for courses including medicine, natural sciences, engineering and computer science at Cambridge, and including medicine, classics, maths and philosophy at Oxford.

Agarwal’s company tells applicants these tests could be “the deciding factor” on whether they get a place. He said: “If you are at a state school and your entire preparation for a test at Cambridge is now only four weeks, that is suddenly very hard.”

He added: “When the tests were after half-term, you could spend the holiday doing last-minute cramming.”

Trainee lawyer Jack Bailey, who grew up in Rhyl, one of the most deprived towns in Wales, and graduated with a first from Cambridge last year, said neither of the two comprehensive schools he attended had much history of sending pupils to Oxbridge. He decided to apply at the last minute “because if I didn’t I might always wonder”.

“My head of sixth form talked to me in September about applying, and by then I only had about four weeks to get my application together. It was manageable but definitely a bit of a crunch,” he said.

“Your deadline might be more urgent but everyone else is also preparing for university applications at the same time and teachers are under a lot of pressure.”

Last year, Bailey used social media to offer to help working-class pupils apply to Cambridge and received a “big response”. He said pupils “not at the sort of school where teachers coach you through admissions tests” would probably find them quite intimidating.

Earlier this year, Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, said: “We have to keep making it very clear we are intending to reduce over time the number of people who are coming from independent backgrounds into places like Oxford and Cambridge.”

In October, Cambridge will welcome a record number of state educated students, 72.5% of the cohort.

Mike Nicholson, deputy head of education services at Cambridge, said it was “not ideal” that tests used to fall in half-term, forcing schools to reopen so pupils could sit them.

He said students shouldn’t worry about not having enough time to prepare, and no one should feel they needed to pay for tuition to get in. “These aren’t tests you should be cramming for. Applicants are not meant to be revising particular topics. This is about how you apply your knowledge from what you have learned already to unfamiliar questions.”

A spokesperson for Oxford said it was “working on how best to support any students who are unable to register by the new deadline”.

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