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.

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