Month of birth affects chance of attending Oxbridge

 
A woman cycles past Balliol College in Oxford

The likelihood of becoming a student at Oxford or Cambridge Universities can be strongly influenced by date of birth.

Last year the chance of someone born in October becoming an Oxbridge undergraduate was more than 30% higher than for someone born in July.

In seasonal terms, compared to the summer-born applicants, autumn births were 25% more likely to get an Oxbridge place, while for winter and spring births the figures were 17% and 15% more likely respectively.

This is according to data obtained from both universities under freedom of information and analysed by the BBC.

It raises the issue of whether universities should start to consider applicants' dates of birth when deciding who to give places to.

Start Quote

For someone born in September, the likelihood of an Oxbridge place in 2012 was 12% higher than for those born in August”

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It is a well established fact in educational research that children who are younger in their year group at school tend on average to do significantly worse in terms of educational attainment. Known sometimes as the "birthdate effect" or "relative age effect", this generally diminishes as children get older but does not vanish.

Less research has been done on the implications for later life, but what these Oxbridge admissions statistics now demonstrate is that the impact on life outcomes can persist beyond school.

The birthdate effect is also a recognised phenomenon in sport.

We obtained figures from both universities for the months of birth of undergraduate applicants for places in 2012. This data only refers to applicants resident in the UK, not international students. The statistics for both universities reveal a similar monthly pattern for those accepted.

Oxbridge undergraduates admitted 2012

Month of birth Oxford Cambridge TOTAL Births (1993/4) Effect

Sources: Oxford and Cambridge Universities; births data from ONS, General Register Office for Scotland and NISRA; analysis by BBC

Sep

233

237

470

66,776

1.12

Oct

256

259

515

64,167

1.28

Nov

235

235

470

59,603

1.26

Dec

238

219

457

62,877

1.16

Jan

259

214

473

62,543

1.20

Feb

208

173

381

57,597

1.05

Mar

227

239

466

65,319

1.14

Apr

215

242

457

62,651

1.16

May

208

229

437

65,454

1.06

Jun

214

182

396

64,429

0.98

Jul

190

194

384

64,612

0.95

Aug

212

182

394

62,738

1.00

This fits with the birthdate effect. The vast majority of UK applicants to Oxbridge are from England and Wales, where school year groups are formed on a September-August basis. Thus those who have been older within their year groups are more likely to reach Oxbridge than their younger classmates.

(In Scotland, school year groups are formed on a March-February basis, and in Northern Ireland on a July-June basis. But only about 3 to 4% of UK-domiciled Oxbridge students are from Scotland or Northern Ireland, so the general picture is still valid.)

Of course the number of people actually born in each month also varies, but this does not explain the variation in Oxbridge admissions. For comparison I have included in the table above the numbers of births by month in the UK in 1993/94, which is the year of birth for more than 80% of the students accepted in 2012.

The final column measures the relative impact for Oxbridge entrance of being born in that month compared to August.

The Radcliffe Camera is a building at Oxford University

This means that on this basis for someone born in September, say, the likelihood of an Oxbridge place in 2012 was 1.12 times (or 12% higher than) for someone born in August.

It takes into account the overall numbers born in that month 18 years previously. This is a simplified and quick analysis, which ignores various details. But none of these factors should alter the broad overall picture of the strong presence of a birthdate effect.

However, in all this it is very important to note that for both universities a similar pattern - weighted towards birthdays earlier in the September-August academic year - applies to all applicants, not just those who were accepted.

This suggests the birthdate effect (like some other inequalities) is already present in influencing which pupils are doing well enough at school to apply to Oxbridge.

In other words, the Oxbridge admissions process is probably reflecting a pre-established pattern of educational disadvantage, not creating it.

Both Oxford and Cambridge routinely issue a broad collection of statistics relating to admissions, such as gender, ethnicity, disability, region and school type of candidates. However neither proactively publishes the data on month of birth, which we therefore obtained through requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cambridge University

Both universities state they do not take an applicant's month of birth into account in the admissions process. A Cambridge spokesperson said that an analysis of admissions statistics should examine a range of variables over several years. Neither university wanted to issue any further reaction.

The impact of month of birth on a wide range of child and adult outcomes is currently the subject of a major research project conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which is expected to report in May.

Ellen Greaves, one of the IFS researchers, commented: "The data obtained by the BBC show that universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, may be missing out on some of the brightest students by accepting disproportionate numbers of pupils born earlier in the academic year."

"Although much could and should be done to address these inequalities earlier in the education system, it is in each university's interest to make sure that they consider a pupil's month of birth in their admissions process."

 
Martin Rosenbaum, Freedom of information specialist Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

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  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 102.

    Shows that summer babies lag behind a lot further into their school career than was previously thought. 6 months makes a clear difference when you are 7 and still does at 17 so it seems.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 101.

    The idea that people all take their A Levels at the same arbitrary age is ridiculous. People mature at different rates, and in the current system, someone who could be an extremely clever student, can be written off merely because they're slightly behind their classmates in development.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 100.

    Also, there are thousands of people across the UK who don't get accepted into these Uni's because of non-academic reasons; I absolutely adore French, and wanted to study it until I had native fluency, and fell head over heels for Oxford during my interview!! I also wanted to row. Now I don't feel like I'll reach my true potential!! :(

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 99.

    "This is according to data obtained from both universities under freedom of information and analysed by the BBC."

    So, it's probably safe to assume there is an inherent bias in the statistics produced by the BBC to meet the needs of the story.

    (See story from earlier this week on chips in kids' school lunch boxes)

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 98.

    The correlation between term of birth and early education attainment has been widely known for decades and its reasons are fairly obvious. Attainment soon levels out though as the Summer born pupils catch up.

    Anyway, the analysis of the data driving the article is a little flawed. April-born pupils are more likely to be accepted that September-born pupils, for example.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 97.

    I missed out then. . . . . .I was born in October. . . . . . Who do I complain to?? . . . . . I could end up being the oldest student they ever had . . . . . oh no. . . . .maybe not. . . . . I'm English

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 96.

    Oxbridge is only reflecting a long well known effect here. JWB Douglas in "The Home and the School" wrote in the 1970s that if you compared registers of grammar and secondary modern schools you would find more autumn birthdays in the former. It is still a serious equality issue that pervades all of education and beyond. The current whole year in reception will hopefully help.

  • rate this
    +7

    Comment number 95.

    I think there is a logical next step which would be to see if there is a similar pattern amongst Scottish students going to St Andrews - only based on the March-Feb school year, you would expect the lowest intake to be Jan-Feb birth dates.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 94.

    What a misleading title! A single line in the article states "it is very important to note that for both universities a similar pattern .... applies to all applicants, not just those who were accepted."

    So in fact what the statistics show is that your chances of being accepted are NOT affected by birth month at all! Only the likelihood that you'll apply in the first place is affected...

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 93.

    Speaking personally as a July baby, I struggled through the early years of school before I began to catch up. But we don't stop 'growing' at 18 & I think that disadvantage was embedded & still present when i went to Uni - I should have achieved better grades.

    Thankfully when i went back to education to take a Masters Degree at 28 I was able enough to fly through it. A gap year is a great thing!

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 92.

    Lies, damn lies and statistics.
    I was born in February, skipped a year (along with a third of my cohort at school), missed half a year through illness, did an A level in a subject I didn't do an O level in and had a scholarship to Oxford at about the same age as my children did GCSEs.
    It can be done.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 91.

    Sometime parents are to blame.A friend made her daughter start school when she had only just turned 4.(she wanted to work & could afford not to)If it were me I would have put her in a year later for the sake of the child. Universities are right to accept on grades.Schools need addressing on ages & class sizes.Parents don't just rely on schools encourage your children more at every level.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 90.

    Ruth: I agree to an extent, but I was predicted an A* in french and two A's in the other subjects (Law and ICT), received an interview at Lincoln college, Oxford, yet failed to get a place. However I noticed notes on my prior education and household income on a typed sheet during on interview, and I never received a place. I think it's biased to an extent - you must have been outstanding!!! :) xx

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 89.

    I might get my statistics class to look at this data. For example the low figure for February might have something to do with its length.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 88.

    Those who are born in the Autumn-Winter months are also more likely to play professional football than Spring-Summer. A child born in October will generally have had 8-9 months more of preschool education/parental support than those born in July - the two groups do not always enter education at an equal level and while schooling levels the field somewhat, it does not completely level the field

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 87.

    @82
    "As a poster on the internet your anecdotes must, of course, be taken as unassailable facts"

    Normally, I'd wholeheartedly agree with your cynicism. However, in this particular instance I quoted data readily available from (reputable) on-line sources.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 86.

    Of course it influences your chances, whether its worth doing anything about is another matter. Life isnt fair.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 85.

    Ruth. "...admissions are based on nothing more than academic ability/potential."
    Splendid. If true.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 84.

    I don't think the division of the school year has anything to do with it. It perhaps has an influence in the lowest years of school, a 6 year-old may be slightly less developed than a 7 year-old. But by the time students are applying to University, the development difference between a 17 year-old and an 18 year-old is pretty much zero.

  • rate this
    +22

    Comment number 83.

    As a July-born, state-educated, northern female, I have no idea how I got a place at Oxford.

    Oh wait, I do.. it's because admissions are based on nothing more than academic ability/potential. I worked hard at school, got good grades and had a real interest in my subject.

    All the people commenting that you need rich parents or a private education to get into Oxbridge are talking rubbish.

 

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