Everyone involved in the undergraduate admissions process at Cambridge is acutely aware of the distress and confusion experienced by many offer-holders and their families as a result of the grading process for A-levels this year. We are doing all that we can to address the concerns expressed – concerns not only about the well-being of individuals, but about the risk of jeopardising the great progress that has been made in recent years towards a more inclusive University.

Our shared aim over the last few days of difficult decisions has been to be flexible and compassionate. Our colleges have looked at every individual case, and across Cambridge hundreds of candidates who missed their offer have been admitted on a discretionary basis, comprising roughly 20% of the incoming cohort of students.

Our commitment to widening participation remains absolute. Despite the extraordinary circumstances and the pressure placed on admissions staff and tutors, the University has surpassed all the ambitious annual targets in our Access and Participation Plan.  We will welcome the highest proportion of students from state schools in our history, with more students from traditionally low-participation neighbourhoods. Our incoming cohort will be the most socially diverse ever.  

There are limits to flexibility, however. Unlike most universities, Cambridge guarantees all incoming students college accommodation and small group teaching based in our colleges. The college experience is crucial to our educational offer. This puts a cap on our first-year numbers. Like all selective universities, we typically make offers to more students than we will ultimately admit, knowing that some may not achieve the offer level, or may make other university choices. This year, we made approximately 4,500 offers for 3,450 places. We will accommodate a larger number of students than usual, but stretching our available resources to accept a big increase would undermine the experience of all students. We must also bear in mind the imperative this year of ensuring the safety of our students and staff, at a time when we are also having to plan in the shadow of a pandemic, with required social distancing. Finally, we must consider the effect of a ‘bulge’ in the cohort that would play out over years affecting availability of courses for a generation of students.

We have committed additionally, however, to admit any candidate whose A-level grading appeal is successful, meaning that they achieve the level required in their offer. (We hope that many students who might have appealed will not have to do so, as we will have already admitted them on a discretionary basis.) If any appeal is successful, and is decided before our spaces are completely full, we will offer that student a place for this year. If the appeal decision comes too late, but is successful, we will offer a place for next year. Likewise, if a student meets their offer following their taking examinations this autumn, their place will be confirmed for October 2021.

The University and colleges are not able to accept all offer-holders for deferred entry, as has been suggested by some commentators, because we must also think about the next generation of applicants who have also seen their educational experience disrupted by the pandemic and its consequences. We cannot simply take away hundreds of spaces from students who intend to apply to Cambridge in the next year or two.

I appreciate and largely echo the concerns expressed by so many members of the Cambridge community.  It is encouraging to see the passion for fairness and inclusion displayed by our current students and recent graduates, and the University and colleges shall do our best to honour that passion. 

Prof Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor



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