Cambridge Univ. wants to be on TV

September 2, 2008 10:18:06 AM PDT
Cambridge University wants to shed its elitist image. It thinks soap operas can help. The university said Tuesday it had written to producers of Britain's three leading soaps, "EastEnders," "Coronation Street" and "Emmerdale," encouraging them to include Cambridge in their story lines.

Spokesman Greg Hayman said the approach to the shows -- which are set in, respectively, a gritty London neighborhood, a gritty Manchester neighborhood and a farming village -- 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. "One of the better ways of communicating directly with potential students is to talk to them through the soaps and other programs they watch."

Cambridge, which celebrates its 800th birthday next year, has also approached sci-fi series "Doctor Who" about filming in the university's ancient colleges, and suggested the automotive show "Top Gear" recreate a 1958 stunt in which undergraduates hoisted a vintage Austin Seven van atop the university's Senate House.

Cambridge and its rival Oxford -- elegant, affluent universities known collectively as "Oxbridge" -- are under pressure from the government to attract students from a more diverse range of backgrounds. The two draw just over half their students from state schools, which are attended by more than 90 percent of British children.

Hayman said many people mistakenly thought of Cambridge as unattainable and expensive.

He said generous grants to offset the 3,000 pound (US$5,350) a year tuition fee, short academic terms and plentiful college accommodation meant "it would be cheaper to study at Cambridge than almost any university in the U.K." Other universities charge similar tuition fees, which are capped under British law.

Hayman said the university's approaches had not yet resulted in any firm commitments from TV producers, although one crew was planning an exploratory visit to Cambridge.

But he is pleased by a current storyline in "EastEnders" that has working-class teenagers Tamwar Masood and Libby Fox considering applying to Cambridge and Oxford, to the delight of their ambitious mothers.

"It's a very happy coincidence," Hayman said.

Oxford University said it had no plans to write to TV producers -- but it, too, has been watching the soaps.

"I did speak to somebody at 'EastEnders' about our bursary (grant) scheme in case the story line was going to continue," said a spokeswoman on condition of anonymity in line with university policy. "We wanted to make sure they knew what kind of assistance might be available to someone like Libby."

"EastEnders" said the characters of Tamwar and Libby had another year of school to complete and it was too early to say whether the Oxford-Cambridge plot would continue.

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