Laura Spence Affair was a British political controversy in 2000,
ignited after the failure of high-flying state school pupil Laura Spence to secure a
place at the University of
Spence was a pupil at Monkseaton Community High
School, a state school in Whitley Bay, North
Tyneside. In 1999, she applied for a place to read
medicine at Magdalen
(There were one hundred students in her
school year, but she was the only one to apply for a university
place at 'Oxbridge
'.) Spence had taken ten
, obtaining the top A* grade in each, and
had been predicted (and later achieved) top A-level
grades in Chemistry, Biology,
English and Geography. Spence was interviewed by Magdalen
However, despite her apparently-perfect
qualifications, she was not offered a place because - according to
the college - other candidates (of whom there were 22 for 5
positions) had equally good qualifications and had performed better
at interview. Nevertheless there were allegations that
College had discriminated against her because of her
state-school background and/or because she came from a
The reason given for Spence's
was, as one media report
put it, that she 'did not show potential'.It was subsequently
reported in the British media that Spence was one of ten British
students to have "won" a £65,000 scholarship by Harvard University in the United States, where she intended to study biochemistry.
The apparent rejection of a well-qualified state-school pupil led
to suspicions that Spence's exclusion was on the basis of social
class and regional prejudice rather than pure academic suitability.
A political row broke out after Labour MP
and then Chancellor of the Exchequer
(who later became Prime Minister
) commented on the decision at
a Trades Union Congress
reception. Brown accused Oxford of elitism
saying that Spence's rejection was an 'absolute scandal' and that
he believed she had been discriminated against by 'an old
establishment interview system'. Spence's headteacher, Dr Paul
Kelley, also said he believed Oxford was 'missing out' and that he
thought that Spence had been rejected because of her being from the
north east of England. The University of Oxford robustly refuted
all allegations of discrimination. Attention was drawn to the fact
thatMagdalen College had offered only five places to study medicine but
had received twenty-two applicants, and that Oxford received a
similar number of applications from state schools and private
schools in the north east of England, and accepted a similar
proportion from each. The admissions tutor at Magdalen, Andrew
Hobson, also denied the claims, pointing out that he was from
Dr Colin Lucas, vice-chancellor
of Oxford, said that Brown's
remarks were "disappointing", and an unnamed Conservative spokesman
reportedly told the BBC: "This is ignorant prejudice. Why doesn't
Gordon Brown get on with delivering at least some of the things
Labour were elected on, rather than telling universities which
candidates they should pick for which courses, when he can't
possibly know the full facts."
In the ensuing debate, those who disagreed with the Chancellor
advanced a range of arguments: some believed there was no
discrimination; some felt Brown did not have his facts straight and
therefore should not have offered a public opinion; and some
believed that Oxford was correct in not offering Laura Spence a
place. When the issue was raised at an Oxford edition of the
political discussion show Question Time
, Professor Robert Winston
said that Spence did not
deserve a place, because "you have to be committed to the course,
and Laura Spence clearly wasn't committed because she didn't even
end up studying medicine." (Spence was later reported as having
gone on to study Medicine at Cambridge as a postgraduate
Spence herself did not get involved in the arguments, subsequently
saying that she tried to ignore the row by focussing on revision
and not watching television for a week. In a House of Lords debate on Higher Education on the
15 June 2000, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, a Liberal Democrat peer and then Chancellor
of Oxford University, criticised Brown for his comments on student
admissions, saying that "nearly every fact he used was false", and
that Brown's speech on Spence had been a "little Blitzkrieg in
being an act of sudden unprovoked aggression", but "The target was
singularly ill-chosen." Conservative
peer Baroness Young
stated that it was "an
ultimate disgrace to use a young girl, a sixth former, in this
It also became apparent that the nature of the scholarship offered
to Spence by Harvard University had been exaggerated, and was based
purely on financial need rather than particular academic merit
beyond that required to win a place..
After the row
The Laura Spence Affair recurred in the headlines in the UK
throughout the summer of 2000 (both before and after Brown's
speech), and is arguably one of the major events that pushed
'widening participation' in
into the political spotlight in the United
Kingdom. It also caused a party political row over a select committee
report on higher education
, Laura Spence made public her opinion
that Oxford had been right to reject her admission on the basis of
her interview, saying that she had been "a bit upset when I came
out of the interview because I knew I hadn't done as well as I
thought I could have", and that she was not "a perfect example of
what Gordon Brown
was trying to point
out because I don't feel that being from the North or a
comprehensive mattered in my case".
Oxford University consistently denied any elitism or malpractice in
its admissions system.
Spence completed her studies at Harvard in 2004, and planned to
return to the UK to pursue a medical career. She also encouraged
more British students to study in the US, citing the "broader, more
balanced curriculum" of a liberal arts
education and the availability of scholarships and
need-based-financial aid to assist with fees that may seem
"astronomically prohibitive". It was later reported that she was studying
medicine at the University of Cambridge.
Saturday 25 October 2008, Spence graduated from Wolfson
College, Cambridge with a degree in Medicine.
she graduated from her medicine course with distinction.
- The war of Laura's rejection, The Observer,
28 May 2000.
- Laura's moment of truth, BBC News, 17 August 2000
- Oxford 'reject' wins Harvard scholarship,
22 May 2000.
- State school applicants to Oxford drop to 54pc,
The Daily Telegraph, 28 October 2000.
- Chancellor attacks Oxford admissions,
26 May 2000.
- Oxford In Question, The Oxford
- She could get a place to study at Oxford or
Cambridge. So why is Dominique off to Harvard instead?,
Independent, 11 September 2005.
- Oxford was right, says Laura, BBC News, 17 July 2001.
- Peers condemn Oxford attack, BBC News, 15 June 2000.
- Harvard admissions office FAQ: financial
- Oxford blues, The Guardian, May 24 2000.
- Row over university report, BBC News, 8 February 2001.
- Laura Spence urges students to US,
5 August 2004.