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Cambridge Admissions Office

Tom Levinson, Head of Widening Participation (WP) at Cambridge
Tuesday, 12 November, 2013

We are often asked what the University of Cambridge does to raise aspirations and widen participation amongst young people from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups. The answer to this cannot be easily captured in a sound-bite – there are such a vast array of outreach activities and initiatives taking place across the University’s colleges, departments and other institutions throughout the year. Furthermore, the types of activities, their focus, content and duration can vary enormously and can have widely differing methods and objectives, within the common overarching drive to ensure that the University’s commitment to educational excellence is shared as widely as possible. 

Some of our WP work is aimed at increasing the numbers of students from under-represented groups who successfully apply to Cambridge, while other initiatives have no recruitment objectives but are aimed at encouraging young people to consider staying on in education after GCSE, and to introduce the idea of university to those with no family experience of higher education.

Encouraging the brightest UK students – whatever their background – to consider Cambridge is something we take very seriously. The fundamental principle of Cambridge admissions is to “admit students of the highest intellectual potential, irrespective of social, racial, religious and financial considerations”1. However, students with great potential don’t always have the aspiration, confidence or support that they need to apply successfully. To this end we invest significant resource – and work closely with teachers in schools and colleges with less experience of submitting successful applications to Cambridge – to ensure that any UK student with the ability, passion and commitment to apply to Cambridge has a clear picture of what the University can offer them, and receives all the support necessary for them to best demonstrate their potential.

A conservative estimate suggests the collegiate University invests over £2.5 million each year on engaging with UK state school students and their teachers. In 2011/12 contact was made with over 140,000 state sector students at over 2,800 different events in schools and colleges around the UK, as well as hosted here in Cambridge.

But outreach initiatives are meaningless unless they have a positive impact on those who experience them. For each WP activity undertaken we ask ourselves the following question – are we achieving our objectives, and how can we measure the effectiveness of the activity?

For a number of years we have been carefully monitoring the impact of our widening participation activities in terms of applications, offers and successful entry to Cambridge.  This has resulted in some programmes (for example HE+ and the Sutton Trust Summer Schools) being expanded, and other programmes being reshaped.

Some WP activities are not designed with recruitment to Cambridge as the primary objective. When funding for the national Aimhigher initiative came to an end in July 2011 the University took the decision to use its own funds to continue to provide the same level of engagement and support to the Aimhigher target schools in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. As with Aimhigher, this project – “HE Partnership” – works in collaboration with Anglia Ruskin and other local universities to ensure students in our local area continue to receive information and guidance on further and higher education options. 

Longer term outreach activities working with younger students, or work with students whose academic profiles indicate they would not be a competitive Cambridge applicant, are both necessary and appropriate for us to engage in – we have a responsibility to work with and encourage a range of students, and particularly those in our local areal. If, as a result of our outreach work, a young person is encouraged to consider continuing their education rather than leaving school at the earliest opportunity then this should rightly be considered a success. Although this type of widening participation work is significantly harder to measure and for external agencies to recognise, we are committed to continue supporting disadvantaged students to fulfil their academic potential.

Examples of widening participation work:

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students
In 1989 an initiative called GEEMA (the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications) was started by a small number of Cambridge undergraduate students, with the aim of ensuring that UK students from ethnic minority backgrounds would not be deterred from considering Cambridge as a Higher Education destination because of a fear that they wouldn’t fit in. During the 1990s, this programme of outreach work expanded and was taken on by the University, becoming an integral part of our widening participation work. In the late 1980s the proportion of UK students from ethnic minority backgrounds at Cambridge was just 5%. In 2013 it stands at over 16%, a figure which is consistent with the general UK BAME population.

In 2012 GEEMA was reshaped to focus support on students from disadvantaged schools in boroughs and local authorities with high ethnic diversity, working closely with schools to nominate high flying students from disadvantaged backgrounds who would most benefit from a progressive programme of academic support.

Sutton Trust Summer Schools
Sutton Trust Summer Schools were first held in Cambridge in 1998. Over the past 15 years thousands of students from non-traditional backgrounds have enjoyed the experience of studying an academic subject in depth for a week at Cambridge, many of whom have gone on to apply to and gain a place at Cambridge and other research intensive universities. In 2013, almost every department at Cambridge ran a Sutton Trust week, and nearly 500 year 12 state school students took part, making ours one of the biggest series of free summer schools in the country.

Each year we can expect around 40% of participants on the Cambridge Summer Schools to go on to apply to Cambridge, with a success rate above the institutional average. Sutton Trust research has shown that almost all Summer School participants go on to successfully apply to Higher Education, with the majority attending research intensive institutions2.

In 2009 the University was awarded the Buttle UK Quality Mark, in recognition of our commitment to supporting young people in care and care leavers. In 2011 we launched the ‘Realise’ project, which combines academic tasters with sessions covering more general questions about Higher Education.  Between 2011 and 2013 more than 600 looked after children from 35 different local authorities attended 30 different day-events in Cambridge. All event costs, including travel to and from Cambridge, are covered by the University. In September 2012, Realise was cited as an example of best practice by an independent inquiry set up by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, led by Edward Timpson MP3, and in the last year the project has been identified by Buttle UK as an example of best practice in access schemes and care-specific web pages.

The University of Cambridge and its colleges are committed to widening participation. We understand that the very best UK students can be found in any school or college in the country, and we work hard to encourage any student with the academic potential to consider Cambridge.

More information on our widening participation initiatives can be found at

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