Somewhat fittingly, I was sitting in the Radcliffe Camera – that’s the domed building in the picture accompanying Owen Jones’ call to abolish Oxbridge – when, in an all-too-typical act of procrastination, I came across Owen’s post. My initial expectations upon reading the title were, I must admit, not high; I braced myself for a poorly reasoned diatribe overflowing with sanctimony and class antagonism.
Having read the piece through, I’ll happily admit I was mistaken. I enjoyed the piece more than I expected, and found Owen’s argument provocative and challenging. But I still think he is almost entirely wrong.
I ought to disclose at this point that I’m now in my fifth year at Oxford, first as an undergraduate and now as a postgrad, and I’m a member of the university’s unrepresentative private school intake to boot – though I very rarely bray.
There is a tension that runs all the way through Owen’s piece. On the one hand, he rightly bemoans the unrepresentative makeup of Oxbridge’s undergraduate body – presumably with the implicit desire for more students from poorer backgrounds to be admitted. This seems to suggest that he thinks that Oxbridge is a Good Thing, but that access to it is distributed unfairly.
But on the other hand, he appears ultimately to conclude that Oxbridge is in fact a Bad Thing, to such a degree that, rather than reform it – and attempt to accelerate the long-run trend of widening access – we should do away with it altogether.
The latter approach would surely constitute a throwing of the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Oxbridge contributes enormously to the success of Britain – not least by nurturing eloquent young writers and thinkers like Owen. Oxford and Cambridge are renowned internationally for their excellence, and regularly appear in the top five universities in the world, genuinely matching competitors from America and the rest of the world despite a large funding gap. Of how many other British institutions can we say that?
What’s more, and to borrow from Bill Clinton, there’s nothing wrong with Oxbridge that can’t be cured by what’s right with Oxbridge. The universities stand unreservedly for academic meritocracy – the idea that the best students with the most academic potential should get the places.
There is no denying that they fall short of that ideal in practice. Critics are fond of pointing out that while only 7% of pupils are privately educated, up to 50% of Oxbridge students went to independent schools (the figure was 44.6% of acceptances to Oxford last year).
But dig a little deeper and the picture becomes more complex. First, consider that private school kids make up 33% of all those getting three As at A-level. This suggests that a large part of the problem kicks in before Oxbridge can reasonably be said to be anything to do with it. Add to this the fact that state school applicants apply disproportionately for the most competitive, oversubscribed subjects, and suddenly Oxbridge’s performance on access appears slightly less outrageous.
None of this is to suggest that Oxbridge shouldn’t keep doing everything it can to encourage applications from state schools – and, as Owen acknowledges, a great deal is already being done. But it does suggest that we are aiming at the wrong target if we lay the entire burden of blame on the universities themselves for the depressing headline figures. As long as private schools exist, we will have to accept that its students will to some degree be represented disproportionately at our top universities – for if they did not confer such an advantage on their students, parents would not spend large sums of money sending their kids there.
Progress is being made – evidently large and increasing numbers of state-educated eighteen year olds are not put off by the apparently fearsome spectre of a couple of fifteen minute interviews and the odd outmoded tradition. Indeed my own experience suggests that it is many of the less privileged students who get the most out of their time at Oxbridge, embracing both the academic demands and the idiosyncratic customs with more enthusiasm than some of their more advantaged peers.
Owen is absolutely right that Oxbridge is not the be all and end all, and that it is certainly not right for everyone. Our national obsession with Oxbridge is probably unhealthy, and it is certainly possible that Oxbridge alumni are overrepresented in our most powerful national institutions.
At its core, though, Owen’s argument displays a disheartening willingness to ‘level down’. It suggests that if access to a good cannot be distributed completely fairly or equally, nobody should have access to it at all. That seems churlish; the task is surely to continue to equalise access to the greatest extent possible. In Oxbridge’s case, that puts some onus on the universities to improve their admissions systems and step up the programmes they already run, but even more on to the state education system so that inequalities are narrowed before the age of 18.
Beneath the privileged veneer of drinking clubs and anachronistic formal clothing, Oxbridge provides an exceptional educational experience that is both available to and embraced by students from a wide range of backgrounds. There is an environment of scholarship and a culture that celebrates original thought and glorifies academic achievement. Britain needs more, not less, of these qualities. Oxbridge is not perfect, but it is here to stay – and rightly so.