Undergraduate Admissions Handbook 2010-11

3.3 Widening Participation at Cambridge

3.3.1 Co-ordination of initiatives

The University of Cambridge is engaged in a wide range of widening participation and outreach-related activities:

  • Widening Participation Team, Cambridge Admissions Office
    The Widening Participation Team is involved in a number of initiatives to encourage students to consider the University of Cambridge, including GEEMA (the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications) and Looked After Children. They also work with FE colleges and mature students, and provide Aimhigher activities for students in the Eastern Region. Members of the team organise a wide range of events in Cambridge to support these initiatives. For details of current events, see www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/events/index.html.
  • The Cambridge Colleges through the Area Link Schemes
    Every Local Authority (LA) area in the country is now ‘linked’ to an undergraduate Cambridge College. A list of these College Area links is available on the University website (www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/arealinks/). The aim of the initiative is for each College, working on behalf of all Colleges, to develop relationships and provide support to schools and sixth form/FE colleges within their designated area(s).
  • University faculties and departments
    The online ‘Cambridge in the Community’ resource directory has been developed to bring together, in one place, information about all the outreach and community work that is taking place within the University and Colleges. This ranges from opportunities for direct contact with university staff and students in Cambridge to web-based educational resources. The database can be found at: http://outreach.caret.cam.ac.uk/showcategory/Find.html.
  • Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU)
    CUSU, as part of their access work, organise the Target Campaign. This involves Cambridge student volunteers visiting state schools during their vacations to talk about applying to and studying at the University. A Shadowing Scheme and open days are also run as part of the project. Colleges are approached by CUSU annually, seeking support for these events through the provision of accommodation, meals and venues. The CUSU Access Officer, who co-ordinates the project, is Andy McGowan (tel: 33313, email: access@cusu.cam.ac.uk).

Regular, informal collaboration between staff involved in these activities is actively encouraged, but there are also formal structures and agreements in place to ensure that information on Widening Participation and Outreach is widely disseminated, and there are regular opportunities to share examples of good practice.

  • The Outreach Steering Group, a subgroup of the Undergraduate Admissions Committee, discusses and makes suggestions and recommendations regarding outreach activities relating to increasing applications and admissions to the University of Cambridge.
  • The Working with Schools Group meets once a term to discuss developments in subject-related outreach activities.

The Head of Widening Participation at CAO is the secretary to the Outreach Steering Group and is responsible for the collection and collation of information relating to outreach activities, required as part of the University’s Access Agreement with the Office for Fair Access, and by HEFCE for the Widening Participation Strategic Assessment (WPSA). In addition, the Admission Forum has agreed that the Head of Widening Participation in CAO should act as a co-ordinator for all individual College and CAO-run schemes. Colleges are therefore requested to:

  • include the Head of Widening Participation in discussions regarding the development of new projects and initiatives, including the expansion of link areas
  • inform the Outreach Steering Group of any new projects
  • collect and submit the data required by the annual Outreach Survey
  • bring new ideas for discussion to the Outreach Steering Group.

3.3.2 Cambridge Special Access Scheme: Guidance for Admissions Tutors

The Cambridge Special Access Scheme (CSAS) is a University-wide initiative that has developed out of the experiences in different Colleges. It is designed to ensure that Colleges have the information they require in order to assess accurately and fairly applicants who have experienced particular personal, social or educational disadvantage. An applicant is eligible for consideration under the CSAS if either of the following circumstances apply:

  • The applicant’s school/college has a low level of entry into HE AND the applicant’s family has little or no tradition of entry into HE.
  • The applicant’s education has been substantially disrupted or otherwise significantly disadvantaged through health or personal problems, disability, or difficulties in schooling.

CSAS forms are available from any College admissions office, from CAO or from the University website (www.cam.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/apply/forms/csas.pdf). The CSAS form requests additional information on the applicant and their school/college background. Such information enables the applicant to be fairly assessed on paper and at interview, and a realistic level of conditional offer to be made.


In order to facilitate monitoring, Colleges should ensure that the CamSIS record of those applying through the Cambridge Special Access Scheme indicates that they are a CSAS applicant.

Operation of the Scheme

We are committed to encouraging eligible applicants to apply through the CSAS, and to ensuring that they are fairly assessed. Not all eligible applicants will be aware of the scheme. If you receive an application without a CSAS form from an applicant who appears to come from a highly disadvantaged school or family background, it is good practice to send the CSAS information and form to the referee to ask whether it would be appropriate for them to submit this additional information. This helps to ensure that applicants with similar circumstances receive similar treatment. Please note that applicants are asked if they have applied through the CSAS as part of the online SAQ.

Admissions Tutors have absolute discretion in determining whether an applicant applying through the CSAS has circumstances that genuinely merit special consideration. For instance, applicants have, in the past, claimed that the absence of a teacher for one week through illness constitutes a significant disruption to their education. In such clear-cut situations it is acceptable, indeed sensible, not to record such an applicant as being CSAS status. However, it is not appropriate to penalise such an applicant in any way; they should simply be assessed in the normal way.

Ultimately, the purpose of the CSAS is to ensure that we have all the information needed to properly assess each application. No harm is done, except perhaps to the statistics related to the scheme, in applicants who are not strictly speaking CSAS status applying through the scheme. The only obligation on the College associated with a CSAS application is to provide feedback on the application to the referee. This feedback could obviously, where appropriate, include comment on whether the applicant was genuinely eligible to apply through the scheme.

Broadly speaking, there are three categories (not mutually exclusive) into which genuine CSAS applicants will fall:

  1. applicants from family and school backgrounds that mean that applying to Cambridge is somewhat of a ‘leap in the dark’. They may have little knowledge of our admissions procedures, and misconceptions about our selection criteria. They are more likely to be unprepared for our style of interviews and to be particularly nervous at interview. The only action necessary for such applicants is to ensure that all interviewers are aware that they may need (i) to take additional care in the ‘warming up’ phase of their interview, and (ii) to make sure that at all stages it is clear what they require of the applicant. Admissions Tutors can readily check the recent Cambridge applications track record of an individual institution using the CAO Schools and Colleges Database. If they judge that a school or college now has sufficient experience of our admissions procedures that their students no longer need special consideration, then no special consideration need be given.
  2. applicants whose education has in the past been adversely affected by circumstances beyond their control (i.e. disability, ill health, schooling difficulties, family problems etc.). It is therefore likely that their examination record will not properly reflect their ability or potential, and will appear less impressive than those of other applicants. The information provided through the CSAS form will enable past exam results to be contextualised appropriately.
  3. applicants whose education is currently being adversely affected by circumstances beyond their control. In this case it is likely that their predicted examination results will not properly reflect their ability or potential and will likely be lower than the level we would normally expect. If such an applicant’s reference and performance at interview (and in any tests administered) indicate that their potential is indeed greater than their predicted grades suggest, then a lower than usual offer may well be appropriate.

After interview, applicants tend to divide into four categories:

  1. those who are clearly outstanding and must receive an offer
  2. those who will do well here and should receive an offer if there is room
  3. those who might merit a place and should be pooled to enable their application to be considered by other Colleges
  4. those who should be rejected.

It is clearly not helpful to offer a place to someone in category (4) who really will struggle to cope here. Applicants in category (1) will get a place anyway without special consideration. As a general rule, a CSAS applicant in category (2) should be placed on the offer list unless careful consideration of the available information indicates that the applicant does not really fulfil the CSAS criteria. Similarly, a genuine CSAS applicant in category (3) should definitely be pooled.

The principle underlying the making of all Cambridge offers is that the conditions are set at a level that the applicant is capable of achieving, given the teaching resources available. Offers to genuine CSAS applicants in category (c) above (and perhaps to applicants in category (a) where judged appropriate by the Admissions Tutor) should, in general, be a little lower than the normal offer. This does not mean that they should be at a level that makes Directors of Studies very worried.