Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, this month gave evidence to The Times Education Commission, which was set up in May 2021 to examine the future of education following the COVID-19 crisis, declining social mobility, advances in technology, and the changing nature of work.

Universities like Cambridge have been challenged by successive governments to reflect wider society by drawing students from all backgrounds.

Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor

Professor Toope’s evidence focused on the higher education sector’s role in raising attainment in schools and sixth-form colleges, widening participation, and exploring different approaches to university examinations and assessment. 

His submission to the inquiry, particularly around widening participation, generated discussion in the media and saw some commentators suggest the University of Cambridge is discriminating against pupils from independent and grammar schools. This suggestion misrepresented the Vice-Chancellor’s comments. Professor Toope's response was published by the Telegraph:

“The University of Cambridge does not and would not discriminate against pupils from any type of school and does not use any quotas when making admissions decisions.

“Universities like Cambridge have been challenged by successive governments to reflect wider society by drawing students from all backgrounds. Unlike our great independent and grammar schools, many comprehensives have no tradition of sending pupils to places like Cambridge with the result that many of their pupils never consider applying. It is those pupils that the country’s leading universities are now trying to reach.

“This does mean that a greater number of applicants from a wider range of backgrounds will be considered for broadly the same number of places. But the most high achieving pupils from independent and grammar schools will still find a welcome at Cambridge, along with those from the comprehensive sector.”

During his submission to the inquiry, the Vice-Chancellor focused on the work universities are doing to share best practice to raise attainment and aspirations in schools.

Professor Toope cited the University’s recently launched Cambridge Foundation Year and STEM SMART programmes as examples of how Cambridge is working to reach talented but educationally disadvantaged students who might not otherwise consider applying to Cambridge, or other top universities. He also highlighted the huge success of more established Cambridge outreach programmes like NRICH and Isaac Physics, as well as Cambridge’s pioneering efforts to widen participation in postgraduate education - including a collaboration with colleagues at Oxford, using a grant from the Office for Students, to develop new admissions practices and systems to help transform selection processes.

New approaches to assessment at Cambridge were also discussed by Professor Toope. The University of Cambridge has world-leading pedagogical expertise and all decisions are based on delivering the most effective examinations. Along with other universities, some of our examinations - where the primary aim is to assess a student’s analytical, critical and problem solving skills - are now 'open book' and completed online. When detailed knowledge retention or mathematical skills are being tested, we continue to use the traditional format of in-person exams. We are in the first year of a three-year trial and data from ongoing evaluation will ensure standards remain as high as they always have been.

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