Spoof rejection letter turns tables on Oxbridge

The mediaeval buildings of Magdalen College, Oxford, which was ‘rejected’ by Elly Nowell © Getty Images

Oxford and Cambridge are ‘elitist’ and ‘ridiculous’, says a UK sixth-former, who has made headlines by publicly withdrawing her application to study there.

Each year, thousands of teenagers from all over the world apply to study at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge. Competition for places is fierce, and only around a fifth of applicants end up among the privileged few who pass through these ancient and famous institutions.

For the rest, a polite, regretful message: ‘Dear candidate, we are sorry to inform you... we understand how disappointing this must be… we wish you every success in the future…’

But, this winter, one young applicant, called Elly Nowell, turned the usual procedure on its head. After visiting Magdalen College, Oxford, to be interviewed for a place on a law degree, she decided to strike first. The university would not reject her – she would reject the university.

‘I very much regret to inform you,’ she wrote, ‘that I will be withdrawing my application... Following your interview, I am afraid you do not quite meet the standard of the universities I will be considering.’

Justifying this rejection, she continued to twist the knife. Magdalen College, she said, was guilty of ‘intimidating’ state school pupils with its traditions and its formality, undermining their confidence and distorting their academic potential – ensuring Oxford University’s continuing status as an elitist club for the expensively educated.

Nowell’s widely publicised attack provoked a pained response from Magdalen’s admissions tutors. Only one of the seven students accepted for law at Magdalen went to fee-paying school, they pointed out. And the university spends millions each year encouraging students from poorer backgrounds to apply.

But the embarrassing fact remains: nearly half of all Oxford and Cambridge students come from private schools, which educate only 7% of the population at large. Meanwhile, one of the richest areas of England – Surrey – produced as many successful ‘Oxbridge’ candidates on its own as the entire poorest third of the UK.

Ivory towers

How to solve this problem? There are two competing views. The universities say there should be more pressure from the bottom up; more effort to persuade disadvantaged students to apply to elite institutions. Special university summer schools, for example, which target poorer teenagers, have been shown to give a huge boost to the numbers of state school pupils getting into Oxbridge.

But a few radical thinkers will agree with Elly Nowell that it is the very existence of places like Oxford and Cambridge which is the problem. These universities, they say, exist only to perpetuate the existence of a privileged elite of people who go on to dominate British society. The problem is not just that this elite is rich – it is that the elite exists at all.

You Decide

  1. Should universities be forced to take a certain percentage of their students from state schools?
  2. Is the existence of elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge a good thing for Britain? Why / why not?


  1. Oxford and Cambridge interviewers are famous for asking incredibly tough questions at interviews (for example: ‘can a thermostat think?’ Or ‘How would you measure the weight of your own head?’). In groups, play the parts of interviewers and interviewees, asking the toughest or weirdest questions you can think of – and trying to answer them.
  2. Do some further research on the history of one elite university around the world, then write a ‘biography’ of the institution. How did it get to be the way it is today?

Some People Say...

“Oxford and Cambridge should be made to open their doors to everyone.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Wait – I can boost my chances of getting into a top university by going to summer school?
Yes, according to a newly released study by the University of Bristol. Researchers found that fully three quarters of pupils who attended a summer school run by the Sutton Trust educational charity ended up at an elite university.
But do I really want to go to an elite university?
That’s up to you – but it certainly helps if you want to be Prime Minister, for example. Nine of Britain’s last 13 leaders have been educated at Oxford University alone.
And is it just Oxford and Cambridge that are ‘elite’?
Oxford and Cambridge regularly make lists of the top ten universities in the world, as does University College London, but there are plenty of other brilliant universities out there too, all around the UK.

Word Watch

Academics have been teaching at Oxford since just after the Norman Conquest, nearly one thousand years ago. It took off as a university during the 12th Century and has been going strong ever since.
Oxford’s younger rival, Cambridge was founded in 1209. Oxford graduates snootily regard it as the junior of the pair, although it is still one of the oldest and grandest universities in the world.
Magdalen College
Magdalen is regarded by many as the most competitive and intellectual college in Oxford (Oxford and Cambridge Universities are divided into colleges, which compete against each other). Magdalen students are an elite within an elite.

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