Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of Whitgift, on some of the opportunities and challenges in Higher Education choices for today’s students

Within the independent sector, Higher Education choices have traditionally been, well, very traditional. ISC research over the years from 2010-2020 showed almost all of the school leavers from HMC and GSA schools choosing a tiny proportion of available courses at a small proportion of (mainly famous) institutions. Indeed, the only movement in the statistics for some years was the occasional swap in first choice university between Bristol and Exeter. And on the (probably still ubiquitous) Honours Board, the gold standard has been the Oxbridge offer.

But perhaps no longer. The steady growth in applications to US universities has been well-documented, particularly at the most academically selective schools. Here at Whitgift, growth has been steady, but really hit home to me only last year, when one of our school captains turned down his Oxford (Languages) offer in favour of Stanford. 

“This year one of our students turned down a Cambridge Computer Science place in favour of the University of Michigan – apparently, it is the place to be for coding” 

According to the Times Higher Education rankings, seven of the top ten universities and 13 of the top 20 are in the States (three and three in the UK, for what it’s worth) so this is perhaps hardly surprising. And, of course, the universities increasingly being considered by discerning students are not only in the US. McGill and Toronto in Canada are being talked of more, and rightly so because they are superb. This year, to me even more startlingly, one of our students turned down a Cambridge Computer Science place in favour of the University of Michigan. Apparently, it is the place to be for coding. 

Why? The prevalence of scholarships is always a big driver, as is the well-known American and Canadian admiration for the all-round applicant – the embracing of sport and music and drama in a way now foreign to Oxbridge. And access, it goes without saying, to some of the greatest minds and thinkers. Perhaps the leading academic working in translation, David Bellos, is no longer at Manchester, but Princeton. The tradition of Liberal Arts and the broader degree plays a part too – and perhaps a bolder, more confident generation. I’d like to think so. 

Oxbridge (and UCL, Imperial and many other selective universities) are still, of course, fabulous institutions. But Oxbridge has a very simple problem: static student numbers, by choice, since Colleges, rightly in my view, retain the residential, tutorial vision despite steeply rising applicant numbers. Quite simply, it gets tougher every year. Is there social engineering? I still think the ‘jury is out’, although ‘access courses’, competitions from which our students are excluded, and contextual data use are definitely edging out many great independently educated candidates.

Maybe it is a simple – and welcome – shift. As the UK forges a more independent path, our young people are becoming more international, broader-minded, braver, more independent. That has to be a very good thing. 

Whitgift School

Further reading: Elevator pitch – why study business?