Senate House

Professor Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, together with senior colleagues from the Cambridge Admissions Office, have today published an open letter on diversity in admissions.

We are committed to a series of initiatives aimed at increasing diversity among our students

The collegiate University of Cambridge recognises the importance of the debate around diversity in admissions. However, we believe that it is critical that this debate should be fair and transparent and supported by evidence.

In recent days, several assertions have been made in relation to diversity in Cambridge – all of which demand clarity – and we want to address them in turn.


In the most recent complete admissions cycle, 22% of the overall number of UK students admitted to Cambridge described themselves as from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, the highest proportion on record. This is in addition to 64% of our students being admitted from state schools, the highest proportion in 30 years, when comparable records began. Our intake from low participation neighbourhoods is higher than the most recent benchmark for the University published by the government.

To suggest that no progress is being made in relation to diversity is therefore not only wrong, but potentially damaging and could deter future high-achieving applicants from applying in the first place. Moreover, our students, whoever they are, have worked hard to secure their place in Cambridge and we should celebrate their achievements. We strongly believe our students want to feel they have secured their place on merit rather than being singled out for special treatment.

We also believe that diversity should be understood in the widest possible sense, including ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, geography, age and disability.  

Entry requirements and retention

It has been suggested that the University should lower its entry requirements to accommodate a more diverse intake. We are proud to be amongst the very best and highest achieving institutions in the world. We want our students to succeed and we will not waver in our commitment to academic excellence. The fact that our student retention rate of over 99% is among the best in the world is testament to the quality of our unique collegiate education and of the pastoral care provided to all students.  Whilst our entry standards are very high and will continue to be so, with most Cambridge students scoring two or more A*s at A level, the nature of our educational provision and support helps ensure that almost all students who come to Cambridge graduate from Cambridge, regardless of background.

Our responsibility

Despite significant progress, we are far from complacent. We know that more needs to be done to reach out to those who are not applying to us. As an institution, we have over 100,000 interactions with students and teachers across more than 2,000 events annually through outreach programmes. We also partner with other organisations through initiatives such as NEACO, a consortium of five universities and eight Further Education colleges across East Anglia, working to increase progression to Higher Education and degree level apprenticeships.

We are committed to a series of initiatives aimed at increasing diversity among our students, including, among many others, Target Oxbridge, a programme funded by Oxford and Cambridge, and which will engage 160 prospective black students in 2018-2019. Further, the University of Cambridge is intending to launch an academic support programme starting in August 2019 to provide additional assistance for students who may have suffered educational disruption or disadvantage. We are also preparing for the subsequent launch of a transition year programme to create additional opportunities for those who could benefit from and contribute to life in Cambridge but who would not otherwise be able to meet our high entry standards.

These programmes indicate the seriousness with which we approach and consider this issue.

Framing the discussion and working together

Rather than framing the conversation around diversity in a manner that undermines the progress made in access and the value of a Cambridge education, we believe a more honest and comprehensive understanding of the issues is needed.

To illustrate this, in 2017, the University of Cambridge admitted 58 black students. We recognise that this is very low as a proportion of our overall undergraduate entry. But the truly shocking statistic is that this represents a third (33%) of all black students admitted to higher education in the UK that year who attained A*A*A at A-level. The University of Cambridge cannot single-handedly fix this endemic problem of academic attainment which afflicts all levels of education and society as a whole, reflecting deeper-seated inequalities across the country.

As an institution whose mission it is to serve society through the pursuit of academic excellence, we are committed to playing our part in facilitating social mobility. To do so, however, we need a constructive and collaborative effort involving Government, schools, local authorities, communities and families as well as universities and others to develop a holistic solution to these long-standing problems. We would gladly facilitate such an endeavour and call on policy makers to take up this invitation and work with us to reach these aspirations.  

Prof. Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education

Jon Beard, Director, Cambridge Admissions Office

Dr. Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges


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