Laura Spence Affair

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The 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 Oxford.

Background[edit]

Laura 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 College, Oxford (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 GCSEs, obtaining the top A* grade in each, and had been predicted (and later achieved) top A-level grades in Chemistry, Biology, English and Geography.[1][2] Spence was interviewed by Magdalen College but 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[who?] that Magdalen College had discriminated against her because of her state-school background and/or because she had come from a "working-class" region. The reason given for Spence's rejection was, as one media report put it, that she "did not show potential".[3] It was subsequently reported in the British media that Spence was one of ten British students to be awarded a $65,000 scholarship by Harvard University, where she later on studied biochemistry.[3] (In fact, Harvard does not award scholarships to attract individual students; it admits students on a need-blind basis and then, separately, awards financial aid based solely on familial need.[4])

Political row[edit]

The apparent rejection of a well-qualified state-school pupil led to suspicions[who?] 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 Gordon Brown (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 rebutted all allegations of discrimination. Attention was drawn to the fact that Magdalen 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.[3] The admissions tutor at Magdalen, Andrew Hobson, also denied the claims, pointing out that he was from Newcastle.[5] 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."[6]

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 BBC's political discussion show Question Time in October 2000, 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."[7] (Harvard, along with most other universities in the USA, does not offer medicine as an undergraduate degree: Spence later went on to study Medicine at Cambridge as a postgraduate[8]).

Spence herself did not get involved in the arguments, subsequently saying that she tried to ignore the row by focusing on revision and not watching television for a week.[9] In a House of Lords debate on Higher Education on 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 way".[10]

After the row[edit]

The Laura Spence Affair recurred in the headlines in the UK throughout the summer of 2000 (both before [11] and after Brown's speech), and is arguably one of the major events that pushed "widening participation" in Higher Education into the political spotlight in the United Kingdom. It also caused a party political row over a select committee report on higher education.[12]

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".[13] It was later reported that she was studying medicine at the University of Cambridge.[8]

In 2007 The Sunday Times revisited the affair, comprehensively reviewing the political statements at the time set against the facts of the case, and subsequent political and educational fall-out. It was highly critical of Gordon Brown's "spectacular own goal".[14]

On Saturday 25 October 2008, Spence graduated from Wolfson College, Cambridge, with a degree in Medicine. Cambridge said she graduated from her medicine course with distinction.[15]

See also[edit]

References[edit]