Cambridge University wants to be on British soap operas

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

LONDON -- Britain's soap operas offer a steady diet of sex, scandal -- and if Cambridge University has its way, scholarship.

Trying to shed its elitist image, Cambridge has approached the producers of Britain's three leading TV soaps about including it in their story lines.

Spokesman Greg Hayman said the idea was part of a bid to correct the perception that Cambridge was "not for young people from ordinary backgrounds."

"We're very keen to attract the brightest and best students regardless of their background," Hayman said. "One of the better ways of communicating directly with potential students is to talk to them through the soaps and other programs they watch."

Like almost all British universities, Cambridge and its rival Oxford are government-funded and under pressure to become more inclusive. The government wants half of all young people to attend college by 2010, which means universities need to target all economic backgrounds.

What better way than through the travails of characters on "EastEnders," "Coronation Street" and "Emmerdale" -- set respectively, in a gritty London neighborhood, a scruffy Manchester district and a farming village.

In some ways Oxford and Cambridge resemble U.S. Ivy League schools, which have long tried to attract minority and less well-off students through scholarships and outreach programs. Several elite U.S. colleges, including Harvard and Yale, have set family income thresholds below which students pay no tuition -- $45,000 at Yale and $60,000 at Harvard for students entering this fall.

"Yale is eager to have as much diversity as possible, and that includes socioeconomic diversity," said spokeswoman Gila Reinstein. More than 40 percent of Yale's students now get financial aid, and the number is steadily rising.

But Harvard and Yale don't occupy quite the same central social perch as Oxford and a Cambridge, whose graduates account for 78 percent of Britain's High Court judges, 42 percent of its top politicians and 56 percent of its senior journalists, according to education charity the Sutton Trust.

And while 90 percent of British students attend state high schools, Oxford and Cambridge draw only about half their student body from there.

Many in Britain's poorer neighborhoods still view attending the schools as an impossible dream.

"The money definitely puts me off," said Matt Ryan, a 16-year-old high school student who hopes to study engineering at Cambridge. "I think a lot of people are put off because Oxford and Cambridge are the best of the best. But if any old person could get in, there'd be no point."

The elitist image is unfair, according to university officials.

University administrators point out that Oxford and Cambridge are not more expensive than less-esteemed universities, because tuition fees are capped by law at about $5,350 per year. Ethnic minority students are not underrepresented -- they make up 16 percent of the student body at Cambridge, and 13 percent at Oxford, a slightly larger proportion than in society as a whole.

"There's a perception gap between reality and how we've been perceived previously and that takes time to change," Hayman said.

The stone buildings and elegant spires of Oxbridge have provided the backdrop for many films and TV shows, from historical drama "Chariots of Fire," set in Cambridge, to Oxford-based detective series "Inspector Morse."

Cambridge is hoping for something a little more contemporary from its latest initiative.

Hayman said so far there have been no firm commitments from TV producers, although one crew was planning an exploratory visit to Cambridge.

But he is pleased by a current story line in "EastEnders" that has working-class teenagers Tamwar Masood and Libby Fox considering applying to Cambridge and Oxford, to the delight of their ambitious mothers.

"It's a very happy coincidence," Hayman said.

Oxford University said it had no plans to write to TV producers -- but it, too, has been watching the soaps.

"I did speak to somebody at 'EastEnders' about our bursary scheme in case the story line was going to continue," said a spokeswoman on condition of anonymity in line with university policy. "We wanted to make sure they knew what kind of assistance might be available to someone like Libby."

"EastEnders" said the characters of Tamwar and Libby had another year of high school to complete and it was too early to say whether the Oxford-Cambridge plot would continue.

Cambridge, which celebrates its 800th birthday next year, has also approached sci-fi series "Doctor Who" about filming in the university's ancient colleges, and suggested the automotive show "Top Gear" recreate a 1958 stunt in which undergraduates hoisted a vintage Austin Seven van atop the university's Senate House.

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