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Abolish Oxbridge

By Owen Jones

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.


Originally published by Labour List

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