- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

— Cambridge University wants to shed its elitist image. It thinks soap operas might 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.

University spokesman Greg Hayman said the approach to the shows - which are set, respectively, in a gritty London neighborhood, a gritty Manchester neighborhood and a farming village - was part of a bid to correct the perception that Cambridge is “not for young people from ordinary backgrounds.”

“We’re very keen to attract the brightest and best students regardless of their background,” Mr. 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, also has approached the science-fiction series “Doctor Who” about filming in the university’s ancient colleges and suggested that the automotive show “Top Gear” re-create 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 together as “Oxbridge” - are under pressure from the government to attract students from more diverse backgrounds. The two draw just more than half their students from state schools, which more than 90 percent of British children attend.

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

He said generous grants to offset the yearly $5,350 tuition fee, short academic terms and plentiful college accommodations 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.

Mr. 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. He is pleased by a story line 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,” Mr. Hayman said.

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

“I did speak to somebody at ‘EastEnders’ about our [grant] scheme in case the story line was going to continue,” a spokeswoman said on the 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 that the characters Tamwar and Libby have another year of school to complete and that it is too early to say whether the Oxford-Cambridge plot will continue.

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