In May 2000, Laura Spence, an A Level student from a comprehensive school in North Tyneside, was widely portrayed by the British media as an innocent victim of a discriminatory and elitist higher education (HE) system. Laura, who had an outstanding academic record (ten A-starred GCSEs and A grades predicted for all five of her A Levels), had been rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford University, after an interview for a place to study medicine. A confidential memo about Laura’s interview, which was leaked to the BBC, appeared to make disparaging remarks about comprehensive school students generally, while acknowledging that Laura was likely to make ‘an excellent doctor’. The debate that ensued (or the ‘Battle of Laura’s Brain’, as it was dubbed by the Times Educational Supplement), conducted variously by MPs, media commentators, schoolteachers, HE staff and, famously, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested that broad sections of British society were far from convinced that the nation’s universities (and, particularly, those deemed to be high status institutions) were accessible to all young people on an equal basis. Contrasts were drawn with the supposedly more meritocratic HE system operating in the United States, particularly as Laura had subsequently been offered a generous scholarship to pursue her studies at Harvard.
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