Abolish Oxbridge

1st June, 2011 3:27 pm

oxford uniBy Owen Jones / @owenjones84

It’s time to abolish Oxbridge. The idea of having two reigning monarchs of the university system, whose students are automatically regarded as being of a better quality than anywhere else, is completely anachronistic and has to go. Despite repeated – and noble – attempts, both universities remain the preserve of the wealthy and the privileged. Both are treated as the training ground for the next generation of the Establishment. What we could call the ‘Oxbridge system’ has to go.

Before I’m accused of having a chip on my shoulder: I graduated from Oxford in 2005. I benefited from some fantastic tutors, and I owe them a huge amount. This isn’t personal – it’s the system that’s at fault.

Consider the damning facts. Over half of Oxbridge students are privately educated, even though only the wealthiest (by and large) 7% of the population is schooled in this way. The proportion of students from “low-participation neighbourhoods” has fallen markedly in the past few years.

Neither university appears to provide a breakdown of their “state” sector, in terms of who went to grammar schools rather than comprehensives, but I met very few other people indeed from comps when I was there. I attended the biggest sixth-form in the country – Ridge Danyers Sixth Form in Stockport, as it was then known – with about 9,000 students. As far as I recall, only three or four of us went to Oxford (although, see here before I’m accused of being a working-class hero, which I’m not).

I enjoyed much of my time at Oxford but, like many people from comps, it was a real culture shock. The place reeks of a public school ethos: not just the fact it is stuffed with such an unnaturally high number of privileged youngsters, but because of all the trappings – like having to attend exams in silly costumes (you get turned away if you wear brown shoes), or having to stand up at ‘Formal Hall’ when the Master of your college walks in, and have a silly prayer read out in Latin.

It’s not like Oxbridge hasn’t tried to recruit people from “normal” backgrounds, for want of a better term. Their admissions department genuinely do go to great lengths to sort out their diabolically unrepresentative intake. I remember one of my tutors telling me about how they set up stall outside football matches.

But they are up against a number of almost insurmountable problems. Many bright young people from comprehensives simply do not want to go to Oxbridge, because they don’t want to spend their university years stuck with those they fear will be arrogant, braying, overprivileged youngsters who may as well have grown up on a different planet. That might be unfair, but that’s certainly how many feel.

Another problem is the interview system, which all prospective students have to go through. Private schools spend years effectively training up their students for the process. One of the aims of private schools is to produce children who are confident, self-assured, and able to hold their own in a debate. Even if they are naturally less bright than a state school counterpart, they are far more likely to shine in an interview scenario. I doubt many comprehensively educated kids have even debated an adult properly before they turn up to an Oxbridge interview aged 17.

And, finally, I don’t understand the basis of having two universities who are regarded – unjustly – as so much better than everywhere else. I’ll be honest: I met plenty of thick people at Oxford, who were simply more articulate or had more knowledge than others (but without being able to apply it creatively) simply because they had benefited from tens of thousands of pounds of resources thrown at them all their lives.

I’ve met many naturally brighter people – who go off to do much better things than their Oxbridge counterparts – who went to other universities, or indeed no university at all. Yet just having an ‘Oxbridge’ label attached to your name gives off the presumption of being the smartest about: and I’m sure this prestige enables Oxbridge graduates to get jobs at the expense of other bright young people.

Yes, part of the problem is the unjustifiable existence of social segregation in education, otherwise known as private schools. Disgracefully, they are granted charitable status, giving them generous tax exemptions. At the very least, this status needs to be abolished. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle the Oxbridge system.

What do I mean about abolishing the Oxbridge system? I don’t mean bulldozing the universities – and their beautiful quads – into rubble. There is an argument about transforming the universities into purely postgraduate institutions, and I am sympathetic to that.

But, to begin with, I would dispense with the interview system, which is biased towards the more articulate – and the more articulate are those who tend to be more middle-class and have benefited from “cultural capital” passed on from their parents. They are not, necessarily, automatically brighter than those who have benefited from far fewer resources.

Then I would completely overhaul the admissions system. George Monbiot suggests offering a place to the top one or two every school in the country. That’s a good start to the debate. I remember one privately educated fellow Oxford student (who had been rejected the first time he applied) suggesting that comprehensive school students like myself only got in because of quotas. In actual fact research has shown that students from comprehensives do better at Oxford than those from public schools. More widely, research has shown state students do better at university than those who were privately educated.

But, as well as redressing the balance with the types of schools, admissions needs to take account of class. The top percentage of those who were once eligible for Educational Maintenance Allowance or on free school meals should be offered automatic admissions, for a start.

It’s not just Oxford and Cambridge this should apply to: all the top Russell Group universities should be made to follow suit.

Above all, Oxford and Cambridge should be normalised as universities. The best tutors should be encouraged to disperse across the university system – perhaps with incentives. It is right to have a top tier of universities catering to the brightest students – particularly when they are forced to reflect society as a whole, rather than the brightest rich kids: and that is the model that should be promoted.

But Oxford and Cambridge should no longer be regarded as the nation’s top universities. It’s time to leave the Oxbridge era behind us.

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  • Gideon Wakefield

    Oxbridge will always try to find the brightest candidates; no tutor would choose a privately educated candidate over a brighter state school candidate – what would be the point?  Even if the interview process was a callous as you suggest then surely Oxbridge would choose state school pupils over private school pupils all the time because they have financial incentives to do so.  You seem to be supporting a meritocracy but you go totally against your own philosophy by suggesting that we take the top percentile from every school.  Taking the top percentile is equally discriminatory as the current system because you ensure that a bright pupil who lives in an area of greater average intelligence won’t get the place that is given to a less bright pupil living in an area of below average intelligence.
    What really needs to be done is a huge improvement in the state system.  The comprehensive system hold back many pupils who would flourish if they were stretched more at school.  Streaming in state schools is essential and so grammar schools would be a great thing to return to, however it would require that we ensure that there is sufficient mobility through the state sector, to allow hard working students to rise up the streams and those who are struggling to fall down the streams.  If we improve the state system to a level which makes private schools obsolete then we can have a true meritocracy at Oxbridge and across the higher education system.

  • I am a first year student at oxford, and before I came here, I went to a state school. I am not from a privileged background. And yet, I feel perfectly at home here. I have encountered absolutely no prejudice for having gone to a state school and as far as  i know, neither have any of my state-schooled friends. The cliche that Oxford is full public school boys looking down their noses at the tiny handful of state school students who wonder round terrified of the fancy buildings is simply not what its really like! If Oxford ever did fit Mr. Jones’ picture of it, it doesn’t anymore. Yes, too high a proportion of students are from private schools, but that is not because of prejudice- it is because Oxbridge takes the best students academically and, unfortunatley, an education that cost thousands of pounds is usually better than one that didint. I am all for abolishing private schools, but not Oxbridge. As for the strange little traditions like subfusc for exams and the Latin grace, they are quaint, and a reminder of how old the place is. That is all. It has nothing to do with a bias towards public schools.
    And finally, interviews – they are a mock tutorial. The Oxbridge education system is based on tutorials – if a student doesnt work well in that environment, then they would probably get more out of a different university. They are also a way of distinguishing between the huge numbers of students who apply with top grades – how woud Mr Jones suggest this be done without interviews? On the basis of family income?

  • Trudge74 as alexwilliamz

    Have you read this article? You seemed to have missed the point, in fact he made it clear that while people might believe the cliche about Oxbridge he does not think this is the case.

  • Trudge74 as alexwilliamz

    Owen. I have suggested an alternative simple random selection in which applications could be done after results were acquired and simply linked to entry requirements. It would certainly break the private schools dominance and probably encourage applications.

  • “admissions need to take account of class”

    no! admissions should not take any account of class, or they would be biased. If universities are forced to take students because of their background then they won’t necessarily be taking the best candidates.

  • A typical Owen Jones rant with no sense, no logic and just a pile of angst about what he perceives to be the enemies of the working class.

    He was made to look an idiot on This Week a few weeks back, this is another example of that.

  • “I met very few other people indeed from comps when I was there”…..”Many bright young people from comprehensives simply do not want to go to Oxbridge…”

    There are very bright kids out there in the state system, but this country seems to have developed such a pronounced, and self-destructive, chip on its shoulder that kids are not encouraged to apply, not given the skills to get in, given the idea that Oxbridge is full of public school ‘toffs’ & they shouldn’t consider going. And so social mobility declines further.

    There are some rare people out there in state schools that tell these kids that they can aspire and they can get in, that it can be for them, but not enough.

    We don’t need to ‘abolish’ Oxbridge. We don’t need to re-engineer the entrance criteria. We need to provide a state education that rivals public schools. And we need to give more state-school kids confidence in themselves & their abilities.

    I write as someone who had a pretty poor education & didn’t have a chance of Oxbridge entry by the way. My father (from a dirt-poor 1930s) background got into a grammar. By the time I was at school they’d been abolished in the area we lived in. It almost always seems to be those who benefited from top-class educations or who got into Oxford or Cambridge who seem to want to deny that right to those who follow after.

    The wholesale destruction of the grammar system was so damaging to social mobility. The politicos could have focused their efforts on improving the chances of children who couldn’t make it to the local grammar. But throwing the baby out with the bathwater always seems to be the easy way out, yet so damaging in the long-term.

  • “The top percentage of those who were once eligible for Educational Maintenance Allowance or on free school meals should be offered automatic admissions, for a start.”

    Ahh, positive discrimination…the solution to all life’s problems!

  • annamirabilis

    This is a compelling and well argued article. The essential points are that many bright students lack the skills to get into a system that is predicated on self replication – you don’t have to be the cleverest to get in but the most articulate. I worked for a world famous laboratory 30+ years ago in recruitment and even then the most able scientists at the lab were frustrated by the assumption that Oxbridge produced the best. They knew it didn’t but the HR people who held the recruitmnet reins insisted that Oxbridge did. You only have to watch 49 (or is it 56) Up TV programme to see that the inependent sector inculcates a sense of entitlement, confidence and supreme articulation skills from a far earlier age than the state sector can possible compete with. If children are schooled from 5 to believe that they are going to Daddy’s old college that produces a self fulfilling prophetic confidence.
    And perception is everything. My brother attended state school and was strongly encouraged to apply to Cambridge. He went on a taster visit and was horrified by the hooray henrys and braying ruperts who seemed to him to be grossly abusing the enormous privilege afforded them and who were condescending and arrogant. He went elsewhere and is now a professor and dean of academic studies at a highly thought of university, being a follower of a discipline which is not wedded to Oxbridge.  Cambridge’s loss.The braying and arrogance are I am afraid the bedfellows of that sense of entitlement which gets them there in the first place.

  • I’m so glad this guy is a poster boy for the left. 

  • I agree with a great deal of Owen’s article. Certainly more positive discrimination is necessary. If we are going to have elite institutions, they must be beyond even the appearance of also being socially elite. An overhaul is all well and good, although I would like to see exactly how the proposal to offer incentives to encourage gifted tutors to ‘disperse’ throughout the academic system would be achieved. If universities need Government money to attract the best, they are clearly doing something seriously wrong, and if instead they are already capable on their own of providing these incentives why aren’t they? Is it the port and high table food that keeps even radical marxist historians choosing Oxbridge?? Similarly, if all the Russell Group had this applied to them as well, Oxbridge could conceivably remain ‘top’.

    The one criticism of Oxbridge I did take exception to however, was the all too common attack on the interview system. Firstly, surely actually meeting and talking to someone is better than judging them entirely from a short personal statement and exam results. Many public schools take great efforts to teach students good written English and encourage the development of a wider vocabulary. i would say if anything an interview is a fairer judge of the person rather their education. The tutors are not looking for confidence or articulateness, although these undeniably help, but the ability to think on your feet, which to a great extent, is down to you, not your education. Debating and a cultural upbringing can help, but showing sparks of spontaneous intelligence is something you can do with a regional accent, or a stammer, or with a few mis-pronounced words. Personal statements, of which I have read a few, are often a golden opportunity for the children of the middle class to show off their ‘cultural capital’- mentioning their successes at extra-curricular activities offered onyl at elite schools, of their skills at music gained through expensive lessons, or even worse, anecdotes from their parental funded travels abroad. These are not bad things, but they are undeniably elitist. 

    However even more wrong-headed, in my opinion, is the idea that interviews are unfair on some people and therefore should be abolished. Now forgive me if Im wrong, but don’t most high end jobs, that many graduates will be aspiring for, require an interview? Interviews are a part of life, not because they perpetuate the old boys’ club’s hold on power, but because they provide a useful way of judging peoples’ potential, and ability to deal with a stressful interaction of the sort many people deal with in their professional lives. The interview isn’t supposed to make you feel relaxed and confident, it is very much a test of your mettle under fire. if students from state schools do badly at interviews, it is not just Oxbridge that is off limits to them, but many, many jobs and professions. To be honest, like it or not, articulateness is an important skill. Certainly it is not the most important, but then I believe Oxbridge is quite good at catching out the smooth, confident, well educated general knowledge buff from the genuinely academically passionate and gifted. Maybe the problem is with state schools failing to give their pupils the skills they need for life rather than Oxbridge elitism. State schools certainly are under a great deal of stress, but government targets and a prevailing atmosphere of mediocrity crushes creativity and individual interest. The problem is as much too many good teachers not working in the state sector as too many good tutors working at Oxbridge.  Ultimately, Oxbridge can and should act as a vehicle for social mobility. However it cannot do this at the expense of its academic integrity. Leaving social mobility up until University is, in my opinion, leaving it a little late. The idea that everyone should be held at the same level throughout comprehensive education from most to least able, regardless of innate ability, and then suddenly should be rapidly and completely segmented and judged by academic ability into a series of University tiers is ridiculous, and obviously gives an unfair advantage to those few who have a pre-university educational advantage. Which leads me, sadly, to an unpopular recommendation, which I know will not be popular; the state sector must be made more academically elitist, with high-performing children, starting from an early age and continuing throughout school, being put into higher performing groups or schools. I hate to be a ‘bring back the grammars’ ranter. But in the end, wouldn’t most people rather people were judged on ability rather than birth?

  • Your actual proposals are much more sensible than your article’s title, but I think you’re wrong to suggest that having elite institutions is a bad thing. Concentrating the country’s most capable students in one place has exponential yields in terms of ideas created and transferred, businesses set up, and simply the culture of the place. The Oxbridge college system, combined with the fact that the university has a disproportionate number of very talented and go-getting students, leads to a cultural ferment that is simply unparalleled in any other university, and to try and dismember that would be a colossal act of vandalism. 

    Quotas for underprivileged students sounds like a good idea; for my two cents, I think having the university give every applicant one or two practice interviews before the real thing would be the best move. I did dreadfully in my first interview, and got in by getting pooled and interviewed at a college I didn’t apply for, which went much better for having done it before. That would level the interview playing field considerably.

  • Oxford and Cambridge are not just regarded as the top universities in this country, but they have an international reputation above many other universities in this country. In an increasingly globalised world, and with £27,000-36,000 tuition fees, it is important that any degree is marketable and recognised around the world. Therefore, Oxford and Cambridge are important part of social mobility; once people are admitted, they can work for a degree that very rapidly changes their career and life prospects. Furthermore, these institutions, along with other universities such as UCL, Imperial and LSE attract international students to this country, introducing them to our society and fostering multiculturalism. In a country which produces very little, the standard of our education system is a cornerstone of our economy and national tradition, and our top universities are to be celebrated and furthered, not diminished.

    As an offer holder for the college that you graduated from, i feel very privileged to have been offered a place, which is how it should be. I am from the state sector, albeit from a grammar school, and although my school did assist me in my application, i think it is unfair to credit my educational background entirely. I worked very hard to prepare my application, which now includes an aptitude test which it is impossible to prepare for, since it assesses aptitude. Other than for medical sciences, such an aptitude test exists only at Oxbridge, and is designed to level the standard of the application between state and privately educated applicants. Furthermore, Oxford and Cambridge put comparatively little emphasis on the personal statement (neither of my interviews referenced my statement once). They base their selection on far more information than any other university; they ask applicants to sit a test, submit written work, and meet people for interview. Consequently there are far more stages to excel and show your worth.

    The last key point of my argument is that although Oxbridge are very grade orientated, they take into account the school’s GCSE and AS-level results, and measure a candidate against the school’s achievement. For example, a boy from my year, who was educated at grammar school for his GCSEs, was denied an interview at Oxford for Medicine because his number of A*s at GCSE was not high enough in relation to the school’s performance. He received 10 A*s and 2As. A girl, who did her GCSEs at a comprehensive, and whose results were comparatively lower, was offered a place for Medicine this year. Both were incredibly worthy candidates.

    The Oxbridge application system is one of the fairest of any university application system. Its student body is skewed toward privately educated students and selectively taught students because these schools offer a higher level of education. Consequently, it is the state sector which needs to be improved, rather than Oxbridge being weakened.

  • Sophie Giddens

    I think traditions are essential to keeping our country alive and Oxbridge is one of them. I do not attend Oxbridge and wasn’t interested to, even though I could have probably had a good go at it but I love the idea of having our famous universities that still have traditions going back centuries. Having visited many friends (all from state schools) who attend Oxford, they are working so incredibly hard, so much harder than I could imagine and I think we should be proud of them. I understand that many don’t get in but that is the way of life and of careers, it is hard! I go to drama school and I had to go through two years of rigorous auditions to get in and that is completely apt, even if only approximately 25 people get in a year out of around 2000 that apply. However, one thing that is clear is that different places accept different people depending on the way they work and how they would benefit and I feel this is the same for Oxbridge. Many clever students may not work well with the style of Oxbridge where as others will flourish. We need this competition to find the best people, just as Oxbridge also endevours to find the best people. I agree we should get rid of private schools but completely disagree that we should abolish Oxbridge.

  • All of these criticisms should in fact be of the state school system, not the top universities. This is the typical left-wing attitude of bringing the elite down, rather than allowing others to rise to the top.

  • Mate, YOU went to Oxbridge. Of course, that doesn’t matter – stay privileged and stop letting working-class kids and kids like me who want to achieve from ever going there.


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