Cambridge recruiting plan: Soap operas

Britain's soap operas offer a steady diet of sex, scandal – and, if Cambridge University has its way, scholarship.

Trying to shed its elitist image, Cambridge has approached the producers of Britain's three leading TV soaps about including it in their story lines.

Spokesman Greg Hayman said the idea was part of a bid to correct the perception that Cambridge was “not for young people from ordinary backgrounds.”

“We're very keen to attract the brightest and best students, regardless of their background,” Hayman said Tuesday. “One of the better ways of communicating directly with potential students is to talk to them through the soaps and other programs they watch.”

Like almost all British universities, Cambridge and its rival Oxford are government-funded, and under pressure to become more inclusive. The government wants half of all young people to attend college by 2010, which means universities need to target all economic backgrounds.

What better way than through the travails of characters on “EastEnders,” “Coronation Street” and “Emmerdale” – set respectively, in a gritty London neighborhood, a scruffy Manchester district and a farming village.

In some ways, Oxford and Cambridge – elegant, affluent universities known collectively as “Oxbridge” – resemble U.S. Ivy League schools, which have long tried to attract minority and less-well-off students through scholarships and outreach programs. Several elite U.S. colleges, including Harvard and Yale, have set family income thresholds below which students pay no tuition – $45,000 at Yale and $60,000 at Harvard for students entering this fall.

“Yale is eager to have as much diversity as possible, and that includes socio-economic diversity,” said spokeswoman Gila Reinstein. More than 40 percent of Yale's students now get financial aid and the number is steadily rising – evidence of more students from less well-off backgrounds.

But Harvard and Yale don't occupy quite the same central social perch as Oxbridge, whose graduates account for 78 percent of Britain's High Court judges, 42 percent of its top politicians and 56 percent of its senior journalists, according to education charity the Sutton Trust.

And while 90 percent of British students attend state high schools, Oxford and a Cambridge draw only about half their student body from there.