Cambridge admissions ‘skewed’ towards London and south east, says vice-chancellor

Deborah Prentice said Cambridge 'has made real progress in welcoming a more diverse group of students'
Deborah Prentice said Cambridge 'has made real progress in welcoming a more diverse group of students' - Denise Applewhite/Princeton University

Cambridge admissions are “skewed” towards students from London and the south east, the university’s vice-chancellor has said as she launches a diversity drive.

Prof Deborah Prentice said she wants to encourage more students from “all backgrounds” to apply to the university, including from across the north west of England.

In 2022, almost half of applications from UK students were from London and the south east, while 7.7 per cent were from the north west and 2.1 per cent from the north east.

Applicants from London and the south east had the highest success rate, accounting for 51 per cent of the new intake, with applicants from the north west accepting 7.3 per cent of places.

Writing in the Northern Agenda newsletter during a visit to Liverpool to meet aspiring students, Prof Prentice, who was appointed vice-chancellor of Cambridge last year, said she wanted the university to “serve the UK as a whole”.

She said that the university “has made real progress in recent years in welcoming a more diverse group of students, and the proportion of students who join from state schools has risen significantly”.

However, she said she shared the concerns of some students that “admissions to Cambridge – which is most certainly a national university – is skewed towards London and the south east”.

Prof Prentice was writing in response to an article by Eva Carroll, 21, a Cambridge student who wrote in the Liverpool Echo about not meeting “a single person with a northern accent” in her first few weeks at the university.

Ms Carroll, who was raised by a single mother in Everton, said: “A lot of the people in my halls had just finished their gap year or ski season.

“Early in my first year, I went on a date where the guy paid for both our pizzas, then asked me to transfer him the £7.50 to his online banking. I thought to myself, fair enough, right? We were both students on a budget.

“We both got out our phones and I saw the balance in his account. It was £50,000. I had about £50 in mine.”

Prof Prentice said she “smiled with warm recognition” when she read the article, as she also grew up with a single parent and was the first in her family to go to university.

The psychologist grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and has spent most of her career at Princeton in New Jersey, where she served as provost. She is the first American vice-chancellor of Cambridge.

Her comments on applicants come after Eton College pledged to open state schools in Dudley, Middlesbrough and Oldham to help close the North-South divide in Oxbridge admissions.

The free schools, to be run in partnership with Star Academies, a leading academy trust, will recruit young people from deprived areas with the aim of getting them into top universities.

At Oxford University, London and the south east made up 47 per cent of UK undergraduate applications and admissions between 2020 and 2022, compared with about 2 per cent from the north east and 8 per cent from the north west.

Prof Irene Tracey, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, has also pledged to recruit more students from outside London and the south east.

Commenting on Eton’s state school plans last year, she said: “The issue is not a lack of talented students, but rather sufficient opportunities for them to reach their full potential, and we very much hope that these three colleges will be a contribution to providing that need.”