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.

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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 Article written by Martin Rosenbaum Martin Rosenbaum Freedom of information specialist

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  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 122.

    @120. Jeannette

    I can only presume neither of your children are studying a subject involving statistics.

    There are individual exceptions to every rule; or are they exceptions? Might your children be doing /even better/ if they'd been older in their classes?

    If only there were some way to control for individual differences and look at differences across populations...

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 121.

    To those born in late summer (Aug 28th) this fact has always been obvious. Glad to see the world finally catching up with something I knew ~35 yrs ago. This is especially true in sports. Someone three days younger than me, in the year below, is bound to have an advantage - flip the question and its even more obvious - what advantage to the child is there to be in the "year above"?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 120.

    My daughter was born in May and was the top girl in her year at primary school - she then gained a place, on her own merit, at a Grammar school. My son, born in October, is one of the high achievers in his primary school. I don't believe the month you were born reflects how you will achieve academically - it's down to the individual and how well they interpret information.

  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 119.

    Do people actually understand that Oxford and Cambridge do not pick their students due to wealth and connections but on merit and potential.

    I have 2 friends that went to Oxford University. Both were working class and from Belfast. Just like myself.

  • rate this
    -13

    Comment number 118.

    I think that Oxbridge admittance is more influenced by family connections to the establishment than by birthdate.

    Oxbridge explains why the UK has declined so precipitously in recent decades - a tired, mediocre elite that is living off Britain's financial & intellectual capital. Contrast the meritocratic grandes ecoles in France & the resulting higher quality of the French establishment..

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 117.

    There is no substitue for experience and the older kids, who are more advanced early on, are put in top sets and given opportunities that capable but less developed kids don't get.(same reason drug cheats should get a life ban)
    It's up to schools to look at potential rather than performance and treat kids accordingly.
    Don't expect a Uni to spot at interview what a school missed in 7 years.

  • rate this
    -12

    Comment number 116.

    Elitism is alive and well in Britain 2013. People who have more money than others think they are somehow superior to the rest of society. These people are deluded snobs.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 115.

    What happened to the long-held assertion that children born in the colder winter months had, on average, a higher IQ than those born in the warmer summer months? This was much publicised by “experts” some years ago. Has it now been debunked?

  • rate this
    +15

    Comment number 114.

    83. Ruth and 109. JonoPUH

    Spot on! Good points well made.

    There are a lot of comments on here from people claiming that Oxford and Cambridge are prejudiced in favour of white, wealthy students which is factually incorrect. These people don't seem to realise that their comments ARE prejudiced against those who actually got there on their own merits and through hard work!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 113.

    Events cause and change other events. This is hardly news.

    How about journalists stop analysis and putting a spin or angle on statistics and get out in the real world and do some actual journalism?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 112.

    This is bad statistical inference. What the BBC have found is a correlation between birth month and higher University acceptance, not a causal link.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 111.

    I was born on the 32nd of February 1872 and I failed in my attempt to sit Mathematics... Discriminate?? not arf!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 110.

    My eldest daughter (born in November) graduated from Cambridge last year and she informed me that, on her course (History), your chances of getting a First were dramatically increased if you had taken a Gap year. Apparently it is to do with relative maturity - so no surprises with this latest analysis on likeliness of getting a place.

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 109.

    I am in my 2nd year at Oxford and all my friends and I were educated at state schools, and none of us are rich/upper-class.

    Sure, they accept a lot of privately-educated students, but their philosophy is simply to take the best, not the richest.
    It's a fault of the school system, not Oxbridge's, that the brightest students tend to come from private schools.
    Don't talk about what you don't know.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 108.

    Could all this be something to do with the ridiculous idea of starting children born in August FAR TOO EARLY into the schooling system???
    Some poor children are starting into mainstream school 1 year younger than others, really not sensible is it!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 107.

    "Also, there are thousands of people across the UK who don't get accepted into these Uni's because of non-academic reasons"

    Well... yes. Have you got any suggestions about how to /academically/ filter between a thousand applicants with identical academic grades?

    In many ways, it's actually the academic reasons that are most unfair; schools fail poor but bright pupils long before this stage.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 106.

    What a fatuous subject. Who cares about Oxbridge any more? Other than BBC mediafolk, (who don't seem to understand that they are two rather quaint over-financed universities which belong in a byegone age of privilege), careerist climbers who thrive on such a system, and Americans. No doubt there will be some idiot couples who will plan their family arrivals on Oxbridge-propitious birth months.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 105.

    @100.AmyJayne

    Non-academic reasons? Do you think you were discriminated against?

    For French you will spend your 3rd year abroad at whichever university you go to and this will be your best opportunity to get fluent. It will be down to you to reach your potential.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 104.

    . . . . and here was me thinking that daddy's income was the best route to success.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 103.

    It is a well known fact that children born at the start of the school year do better at aschool than those born later.

    However the biggest barrier to getting into Oxbridge is class. If you are middle and upper class with a public school education you have a much better chance of getting in than someone who is wiorking class.with a state education.

 

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