Sunday thoughts: Should we care that private school children are going to study at the Ivy League?

Jonathan Simons
7 min readAug 14, 2022
Laura Spence, who was rejetced in 2000 for a place at Oxford and went on to study at Harvard

Gordon Brown is in the news again. “Oh, you like Gordon Brown now?”, runs a tweet. “Name three of his albums”.

There’s many to choose from. But the one that springs to mind here — the political equivalent of “I saw U2 once in a room above a pub in Dublin playing to 5 people” — is the Laura Spence affair.

Laura Spence was a smart 18 year old from a state school in Tyneside who failed to get a place at Oxford in 2000 to read medicine, and whose cause was taken up (misguidedly) by GB, who accused Oxford (wrongly) of elitism in rejecting her. At the same time, she was offered a significant scholarship, and went to study at Harvard.

The question is whether a Laura Spence in 2022 would bother applying to Oxford, or would just apply to Harvard first. The Times this weekend splashed a piece with extensive commentary and data from leading independent school heads suggesting that growing numbers of their students are actively choosing US universities over UK counterparts. The argument is that their students and parents are drawn to it by the increasing difficulty of getting into Oxbridge, and the better options for them stateside.

I pause here for the tears from readers, haunted by tales that rich children are denied a place at Oxbridge that was assumed to be theirs by birthright, who now need to go and buy a place abroad instead, leaving more spaces for talented young people in the UK from all backgrounds.

But that cynical reaction would be a mistake. I think it really matters if systematically, smart young people from the independent sector, and state sector, start being targeted by US unis (or others), and we should be concerned as an HE sector and as a country.

Firstly, let’s get a sense of perspective. According to David Hawkins from the University Guys, only 34 students went from the UK to Harvard last year. Because the top US universities are so selective (much more so than even Oxbridge, in terms of the ratio of applications to places), the argument runs that the numbers will never get that large.

It’s also true that the famous US universities appeal to a certain type of student — and those students often have a much higher chance of getting in. Academic merit is crucial, of course, but the hinterland of a student is just as important. The Ivy League is called that because it was originally just that — a league of sports teams, where four (IV) universities ranked themselves against each other when playing American football. Although the focus of those colleges now goes much wider (and ‘Ivy League’ has become a proxy for a wider number of highly elite institutions in the US), those campuses still place a huge amount of weight on extra curricular activities to become accepted. 44 of the current 90 UK students registered at Harvard row crew or play other sports competitively for the university, for example. That means that independent sector students are likely to be more attracted to, and attractive to, such universities — because they are likely to have been able to show a lot of the sporting or wider accomplishments required. This is doubly important in the case of chasing scholarships. In fact, within the US, there’s a surge of middle class parents putting their children into slightly more exotic sporting activities, on the grounds that there’s a chance of obscure full ride scholarships to the Ivy League if their progeny turns out to excel in ice hockey, fencing, or water polo. Put together all the other elements of the population of some independent schools: high numbers of foreign students; globally minded parents (often who are not UK citizens); deep pocketed families; and young people who have had the opportunity to demonstrate well rounded excellence, and you can see both why there’s a fit between the US and some independent schools, and also that there might be a natural cap on the number of these ever going.

And of course for the students who do go — including through organisations like the Sutton Trust, quoted in the Times piece, or the Talent Foundry, who both do magnificent work giving opportunities to smart state school kids like Laura Spence to experience US universities and help sort out financial aid — it’s life changing.

But even if the Ivies will only ever take from the HMC boarding schools and a few identified geniuses from intensive access programmes, there’s no reason why less famous but still incredibly high performing US colleges who care less about water polo and fencing might not increasingly start looking across the pond to take much larger volumes of smart kids from leading MATs and other state schools. Around 35,000 UK students a year study abroad already — an estimated 1%-2% of the cohort (excluding much greater numbers who do short term placements), about a third of whom do so in the US. And even if it only peaks at say 5%-10% taking that option, if those are disproportionately the ones with the strings of As and A*s, which it’s likely to be, then I think that’s a problem for top UK universities, and for UK plc.

Internationalization of higher education can have huge benefits to institutions, researchers, and students. Students get experience of other countries and cultures, universities and researchers share ideas and collaborate, and countries benefit from two way flows of ideas, funds, and individuals. In low and middle income countries, migration of young people brings knock on benefits to the home country including through remittances, which can be a major part of a country’s economy, and subsequent return of some more highly skilled people. More broadly, countries as varied as Israel, Ireland and India (and, er, other countries that don’t start with I) have all made various moves to try and capitalize on their broad diaspora communities — whether that be flows of funds back home, soft power among diaspora communities advocating for their ‘home nation’, or interlinkages in terms of business and capital. I’m not arguing here for a pull up the drawbridge approach. Indeed, the UKs international education strategy is one of the best pieces of work which I think the government has done in recent years (harmed only because it was insufficiently ambitious) and I’ve long argued for visa reform and other measures to attract and retain talent from abroad and exchanges of students and campuses both ways.

But it’s not illegitimate for a country to consider its own national assets and positional good. It’s possible both to be a liberal and an internationalist, and also to recognise that uber-cosmopolitan values that downplay the importance of national identity takes the argument too far. Free exchange of people is a positive good, as is free trade of goods and services. But I am a UK citizen and taxpayer, and I unashamedly want the UK to flourish economically and socially. So within that notion of free trade, and globally engaged universities and a UK international strategy, we especially welcome UK universities setting up campuses abroad. We seek to attract international students coming to the UK to study. We create opportunities to welcome researchers and academics making or furthering their careers in UK institutions. We do so because of the mutual benefits of free exchange, but also because it benefits the UK economically and socially and in soft power terms. And so logically, if the flows go the other way — if more highly rated academics want to go and make their name in the US, or a greater number of students start choosing to go and study other countries, then it follows that while good in the abstract, and brilliant for those individuals, it’s legitimate to have concerns about the macro impact in the UK.

Because if we do start to see a brain drain at scale, then it won’t just be a case of disgruntled Harrovians going to Stanford because they couldn’t go to Cambridge. It will indicate that some of our smartest young people from state and independent schools don’t think they are best placed continuing their education in UK universities, with all the knock on consequences for the researcher pipeline that that brings. One of Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial’s biggest concerns (unquestionably our four greatest universities in the UK for research) is the pipeline for the next generation of the best junior researchers and academics. And it’s very plausible that forward thinking companies in the US and elsewhere will make offers to those same UK graduates studying abroad to get them to stay and work (and pay tax) there once they’ve finished studying, meaning consequences for UK companies and the UK tax base.

Maybe some of them will come back to the UK over time — as Laura Spence did (she did a Masters at Cambridge, and became a doctor). And of course UK citizens benefit from companies abroad that have offshoots in the UK, and from new services invented and commercialised abroad that sell internationally. I’m pretty sure that between the laptop I typed this on, the website it’s hosted on, or my phone that I edited it on, there isn’t much UK involvement, and yet I benefit.

But I want new start ups that are dreamed up by graduates to be based in the UK, and to expand here. I want bright students from the UK and abroad to recognise that world leading scholarship can be undertaken here in the UK. I want to see new cutting edge technology invented, scaled, and deployed and commercialised here. I would love to see the next life changing innovation to solve a global social problem (nuclear fusion / carbon capture / new vaccines / you name it) being created in the UK, or including academics and researchers and people educated and trained in the UK. Our people and our talent in universities are advantages for UK plc. Dismissing the possibility of a brain drain because it’s just currently a handful of students, or that they’re rich, or that the global benefits of migration are positive, risks undermining two of our most powerful assets in a global knowledge economy.

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