Bridging Wales’ Oxbridge Gap

picture of Cambridge university building

Lord Paul Murphy talks to Dylan Moore about why Wales has an Oxbridge problem, the Seren project that aims to support Wales’ brightest – and how we might eventually tempt those graduates back

When Paul Murphy, later to become Lord Murphy of Torfaen, went up to Oriel College Oxford in the late 1960s, only 5% of the UK population went to any university at all. ‘Things have changed,’ says Murphy, a mantra repeated throughout our conversation. It is, of course, true. Wales has changed; Oxbridge has changed; the world has changed. But one thing has remained: a Welsh inferiority complex when it comes to Britain’s finest two universities.

Oxbridge Series

This week on Click on Wales we take a look at the Welsh experience of Oxbridge.
You can read the full series here

Murphy’s is a familiar story. Son of a coal miner, he was the first of his family to go to university, let alone the best in the land. As a young man, he ‘never thought Oxford was within my reach’ but, benefitting from his education at West Mon., the Pontypool grammar school for boys, which had built something of a tradition of sending its brightest students on to Oxford and Cambridge, he ended up having a ‘brilliant time for three years.’ There was, of course, a huge academic benefit – Murphy read History under the tutelage of, among others, AJP Taylor – but this was coupled by an ‘entire widening of horizons’. Oriel allowed Murphy to indulge his passion for classical music, an opportunity he may not have been afforded elsewhere, and he was also able to join the Oxford University Labour Club which paved the way for his eventual political career (after 17 years back in Wales as a teacher in Ebbw Vale).

What Oxford did for Murphy is something he is determined that today’s Welsh sixth formers should not miss out on. As Oxbridge Ambassador for Wales, his report for Welsh Government has resulted in the adoption of a Wales-wide initiative to support the country’s brightest students. Seren hubs allow Wales’ Year 12 and 13 students to meet university tutors and Oxbridge alumni from their own area in the hope that we might close the Oxbridge gap. Murphy’s report had found that fewer Welsh students apply to Oxford and Cambridge than their counterparts in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the English regions, and that application success rates were also proportionally lower.

Wales has an Oxbridge problem. But why? ‘The biggest single issue’ Murphy had to confront in the course of his research was the idea that ‘it’s not for me’. Overwhelmingly, what Murphy calls ‘the myths’ of Oxbridge – Bullingdon Clubs and Brideshead Revisited – were able to flourish in a culture where, often, Wales’ brightest and best students do not know anybody else who has been. Encouragingly, Murphy notes that, if they do get in, Welsh students actually do marginally better than their peers from elsewhere; perhaps, posits Murphy, ‘they are used to having to try that little bit harder’.

Murphy is keen to stress that Oxbridge is not the be all and end all. Only 20% of the total number of applicants to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge are successful, so it is inevitable that the majority of those students selected for the Seren programme will end up in other Russell Group universities. ‘We have very good Welsh universities, and some students would prefer to stay at home, or go to London, or another big city; there’s no exclusivity,’ Murphy says. ‘But there is a big but: Oxford and Cambridge are two of the finest universities on the planet.’ The former Torfaen MP lives up to his role as Ambassador. ‘It’s a two way street,’ he says, advocating for the colleges as much as for Wales: ‘Wales has to come up to the mark.’ Oxford and Cambridge, he argues, ‘have changed. One or two colleges in both universities are still snooty, and dominated by public schools, but overwhelmingly they take increasing numbers from state schools.’ He was impressed by how seriously both universities took the ambassadorial project, each seconding a full-time member of staff to look at the issues.

One of the issues, of course, is devolution itself. Wales and England have different, and diverging, education systems – and Oxbridge has had to adapt. In England, the abolition of AS Levels has led to a return to the days of the admissions test, at least in Cambridge. And in Wales, the introduction of the Welsh Baccalaureate has created other issues. Murphy is pleased the qualification is now graded, but is still unconvinced about its value to able scientists. ‘It can help with politics, history, the arts subjects,’ he argues, hinting at widespread disillusionment with the Welsh Bac’s value among students themselves. ‘The other issue, of course, is the Welsh language.’ Murphy has done much work alerting Oxbridge admissions tutors to the potential difficulties faced by those educated in Welsh who may have a lack of fluency regarding highly specialised technical terms in English. He is pleased to report however there is a even balance between English students studying in Wales and Welsh students crossing the border into England.

Murphy ‘keeps in touch’ with the Seren programme and is impressed with its early successes. He recently attended the launch event for the South-East Wales Hub, at Ebbw Vale College, and was heartened by the sight of students from different schools working together and teachers comparing notes. ‘It will be,’ says Murphy, ‘a couple of years before we start seeing the results of the Hub system,’ but he is certainly hopeful that many more Welsh students will be following in his own footsteps in the near future.

On the bigger question, of the potential for brain drain and the ability of Wales to attract its brightest academic stars back to the country, Murphy strikes a balance. On one hand, he sounds a note of circumspection – ‘We are only three and a half million people’ – the implication being that the big wide world will inevitably have its draw: ‘If you want to work in international banking, you will go to London – but you’d go to London even if you were born and educated in Paris.’ On the other, Murphy throws down a gauntlet. ‘That’s up to us,’ he says, ‘we need to make sure there are opportunities for them to come back. Hopefully a lot [of Oxbridge graduates] will come back to Wales, and bring their experience and intelligence – but we need to create more jobs for top graduates and professionals.’

Dylan Moore is the IWA's Comment and Analysis Editor.

11 thoughts on “Bridging Wales’ Oxbridge Gap

  1. This is an interesting article and the Seren programme is certainly a good idea.

    I can’t help feeling however that the article betrays some of the inferiority complex that it castigates.

    For instance, it is doubtful, it apppears, whether Mr. Murphy would have acquired a taste for classical music had he not gone to Oxford.

  2. Yes, I suppose that if the UK, or England, has two highly selective, but outstanding universities, then it might make sense to foster ambitions to go to them, and to make sure there are jobs for those graduates on completion of their degrees. However I would rather there were lots of other outstanding British universities to choose from, and that a culture of elitism centred on ‘Oxbridge’ wasn’t maintained. Anybody would think that a degree gained there was better than one from any other university!

    First class degrees from Welsh colleges ought to be as valued, and as valuable as those from Oxford or Cambridge, and jobs for intelligent and talented graduates likewise. I doubt that many people would be pleased to discover that such jobs were being reserved for graduates from Oxbridge.

    We need to reject the culture of Brideshead Revisited, and Downton Abbey; and the elitism associated with selective private schools. I don’t aspire to make or eat that dessert, Eton Mess – it’s for schoolboys, who like to stir their jam in their rice pudding too.

  3. @Alice Jam in’t rice puddin!? By eck.. when I was a lad we only had mud! And then only after we had carried half a ton of coal up hill and fed donkey rotten potatoe gruel.
    Seriously though, I know one or two Oxbridge graduates (from Wales) and there is no way on earth they could be persuaded to come back to Wales. I am a huge admirer of the writing of Gwynn Thomas (who went to Oxbridge and ‘came back’) and look what happened to him! You can’t put wild birds back into their cages, it’s cruel. It’s not ‘jobs’ that these high flyers aspire to, it’s ambition and drive to be at the centre or cutting edge of things whether it’s politics, commerce or culture. Until we can offer something more exciting than ‘a job’ then our brain drain will continue.
    As for our own universities, they sometimes seem more intent on generating money than educating. The well documented plight of Aberystwyth university and Swansea Business school are cases in point. This perception is not attractive to talented young people.

  4. As someone who obtained a PhD in chemistry at an English University, which at the time was ranked alongside Oxford and Imperial and higher placed than Cambridge in the research rankings, I find this emphasis on Oxbridge, baffling to say the least. Why haven’t we got the same push for Edinburgh or Imperial for example.

    We want our children to have access to all the best universities, but I find singling out Oxford and Cambridge and putting them up on a very high pedestal, a strange throwback to another era. I have worked alongside scientists, educated at a wide range of Universities and some of the best I have worked with have been to relatively unfashionable universities. I understand that they may hold some elitist controls over roles in the Civil service, law or journalism, but surely this is something to be rectified and not supported or endorsed.

    And as for this comment:
    “The other issue, of course, is the Welsh language.’ Murphy has done much work alerting Oxbridge admissions tutors to the potential difficulties faced by those educated in Welsh who may have a lack of fluency regarding highly specialised technical terms in English.”

    This line is absolute poppycock – only a non-scientist would regard fluency in so-called English language technical terminology as something of any significance. It has none whatsoever. Science is not all about terminology and very little of the terminology in science is actually in English – it is about grasping concepts and being able to rationally formulate ideas. SI units are SI units; the symbols on the periodic table are not in English and I have no idea how the English language gives you an advantage with the Greek alphabet that mathematicians and scientists prefer to use. Is it easier for an English or a Welsh speaker to associate the chemical symbol Au with gold? Czech, French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese scientists learn their terminology in their languages and are welcomed with open arms at all of the English speaking universities around the world.

    I have worked with English speaking scientists, who obtained their PhDs in Italy and Belgium, viva’d in the local languages – their English language skills were neither a deterrent or an advantage in those cases. I have worked with laboratories in Finland who conduct all of their research in Finnish, just as the French use French and the Spanish use surprise, surprise Spanish.

  5. Do I have a chip on my shoulder about not having had the opportunity (or the A Levels or the parentage) to go to Oxbridge? Well yes I probably do, but as @Aledf correctly says, there are many other as good, and in some cases better, places to get a scientific education.
    It needs to be said, however, that most ‘science’ practice doesn’t require much intelligence, is very often pretty boring, repetitive, recipe following and just like any other profession, can be a hard slog strewn with the minefields of other colleagues and bosses ambitions. If you want to use your ‘imagination’ it may be better to choose another career – like a priest. Thinking ‘outside the box’ is not encouraged in most science career environments unless you want to end up in a box. It is also underpaid! I should know! Been there, done that and own the T-shirt.
    I suppose there has always been the abstract attraction (thrill?) of unlocking a small part of Nature’s Secrets but the days of Eureka moments are long gone. Fame and fortune no longer beckon to those tied into unbreakable knots by patent legalities and costs. Most ‘discoveries’ or more likely, incremental scientific advances and innovations, are a result of team work in mega corporations or government Institutes who have the funding, sufficient equipment and facilities to do ‘proper science’. Universities, not even fabled Oxbridge, cannot do this any more – they are not even close to the proverbial cutting edge. In the US, cynically, universities are regarded as ‘retirement’ homes for industry, military or government drones who have burned out, are past 35 or don’t want to be Peter Principled into or are unsuitable for a ‘management’ role.
    I blame AledF for sparking this mini rant and I agree with him that the language issue is ‘poppycock’, although I might have used stronger terminology!

  6. AledF, There are always bright individuals in any society that will do well in any academic setting but Welsh education is damaged to a point beyond repair and will prevent many young people achieving their true potential. Welsh Labour Government’s prioritising of the Welsh language and Welsh speaking teachers is the real culprit for the low education standards in Wales. According to the Spectator, Welsh GCSE’s are at least two grades inferior to English standards and we all know where Wales stands in terms of the PISA rankings (Lowest of the low). We now have an absurd situation where Welsh Government’ is promoting Welsh Medium education to parents of English L1 kids in the full knowledge that the WME will damage them for life. See: No surprises then that most English academic institutions do not rate the Welsh qualifications!

  7. @Chris Jones Young people might associate making money with success. However, it’s easy to spout learned dogma and get rewarded with good marks, and many talented students will take their abilities to the universities with the better reputations.

  8. Higher education, particularly Russell Group Institutions remain disproportionately populated by well qualified independent schools entrants who scrub up well at interview. Wales doesn’t have many independent schools. Our state secondary schools under perform against the rest of the UK and our children mumble. Deal with that particular issue and you solve most of the problem.

    I find it worrying that on a per capita basis Wales has so few ‘Russell Group’ calibre universities – something we could fix which might raise the general academic standard in society.

    Finally, the rumour in educational circles here in Wales is that when the Seren project kicked off WG scouted about for a bright young Oxbridge graduate from within it’s staff to run it. Unfortunately they found they didn’t actually have one !

    Now where did I leave my copy of Porterhouse Blue……..

  9. Having enjoyed my Gaudy at Jesus College on Friday (we who ‘went up’ in 1981 mingling with ’66, 01 and ’11) I have much to reflect on.

    None of the Welsh speakers I met had any difficulties in expressing themselves. This was also the case for the French, Irish and Swahili speakers I got to know. Mr Murphy should not let his hang-ups obscure what happens in reality.

    Many state schooled people (like me) were relatively sophisticated people before we went up, while quite a few public school types (chaps mainly) were pretty gauche once you looked beyond the surface gloss.

    Back then, Cardigan school sent one to Oxford every year. It was not alone. What has happened here?

    The ‘brain drain’ is a fact iof life, as it is in many parts of England. This reflect’s the UK’s London-centred culture. Will it always be this way? Perhaps not, as London gets more expensive, overcrowded and simply a more hateful place to live in.

    In my case, I was able to return (my father left after Oxford, he was a scholarship-boy at Jesus in 1931 and went back in 1946) after working for 13 years in London. I had a business to bring with me and we wanted to live somewhere where we could breathe. A fair few who I knew have come back as well.

    Oxford is a place that helps the bashful believe in themselves. Going there remains a noble aspiration.

  10. When did this “it’s not for me” idea take hold? It’s really only one step away from “I know my place”. Forty years ago, anyone from my bog-standard south Wales grammar school who had the remotest chance of success used to apply to Oxbridge. I don’t think many of us knew adults who had gone there. It was simply seen as something one could reasonably aspire to, and aspire we did. In those days Oxbridge was much more monocultural than it is now, when roughly 20% of students are of foreign or BME origin. It is perhaps rather ironic that Welsh students have, in effect, been squeezed out by people who conform even less to Oxbridge stereotypes than they do. And it is a great pity that they should lack the confidence or indeed courage to apply – their teachers and parents should do far more to encourage them to look beyond their comfort zones, and in this the Seren initiative is very welcome.

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