Did she lie?

Laura Newey

Last month my social media feeds were flooded with the tale of Mackenzie Fierceton, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who lost her Rhodes scholarship to Oxford after allegations she had misrepresented her background. Fierceton had apparently made much of her status as a ‘first generation, low income’ student, an abuse survivor who aged out of foster care. As an anonymous letter writer revealed, however, she was also the privately educated child of a radiologist, brought up in an affluent suburb. Did she lie? Or was she merely ‘canny’, as the Rhodes Trust put it, in emphasising certain aspects of her personal history over others?

During my BA at Oxford I received a Crankstart bursary, a partial fee remission given to undergraduates with household incomes under £27,500. The university awards a handful of fully funded scholarships to Crankstart recipients who stay on as postgraduates; I’m one of them.

I wonder if I, too, am defrauding the university. My mother subsisted on benefits for several years in my teens, and after that on a salary well below Crankstart’s upper income threshold. We often couldn’t afford to heat our home. On the other hand, both of my parents went to Oxbridge. My father was a philosophy professor. I boarded at a specialist music school, funded by the government’s Music and Dance Scheme, then at a highly academic private school on a full bursary. Among other huge boons, these facts – educated middle-class parents, a financially secure early childhood, elite schooling – ensured I never felt I didn’t belong at Oxford.

The nature of American college admissions essays may be in part to blame for Fierceton’s exaggerations. Applicants are encouraged to weave personal narratives of adversity and hardship – by some accounts, to ‘sell their pain’. UCAS personal statements, by contrast, focus prosaically on academic achievements and interests. Oxford allotted me the Crankstart bursary based on a set of bald facts: the schools I went to, my parents’ occupations and educational backgrounds, our household income, whether we had ever claimed benefits. I was never asked (or given the opportunity) to spin this information into a personal mythology of deprivation. I hope that, in Fierceton’s position, I would have given a nuanced account of the coexisting privileges and disadvantages in my background. But the incentives to exaggerate can be overwhelming.

UK universities are also keen to present themselves as champions of marginalised students. One Crankstart scholar writes that ‘careers advisers have encouraged me to place [the bursary] front and centre on my CV as an emblem of my academic success against the odds.’ Even if you are scrupulously honest, universities subtly massage the data regarding access. Oxford’s rising percentage of state school admissions – 68.9 per cent in 2021 – regularly makes headlines. But offers are dominated by a small number of high-performing grammar schools in prosperous areas.

It’s hard to say that Fierceton lied, exactly. It was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that claimed she had ‘grown up poor’, not Fierceton herself. She did spend a year in foster care, and the allegation of abuse against her mother that led her to be placed in care was credible, though never conclusively proven. Being estranged from her college-educated mother, she also meets Penn’s rather broad definition of ‘first generation, low income’. As two of Fierceton’s teachers at Penn have noted, such a definition allows the university’s senior administration ‘to boast, as it regularly does, that Penn has many [FGLI] students’. By smearing her as a liar and a grifter, Penn and Rhodes have disguised their own complicity.

Admittedly, Penn or Oxford’s capacity to effect genuine social change is limited. Educational inequalities are entrenched long before university – indeed, before primary school. All the same, universities should not obscure the reality that the benefits of access initiatives are often reaped by cash-poor middle-class people. We might also ask whether resources should be concentrated on the vanishingly small number of multiply deprived students who have a shot at Oxford, rather than the much larger contingent of their peers who don’t even get a good set of GCSEs.