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Abolish Oxbridge? Treat the Causes First

June 1, 2011

On Labourlist today, Owen Jones argues that we should abolish Oxbridge. To be exact, he argues that we should get rid of the ‘Oxbridge system’ – the idea that degrees from Oxford and Cambridge are automatically superior to those gained from other institutions.

I agree that these assumptions are damaging to the ability of employers to judge the abilities of graduates, and that there is a tendency towards an ‘old boy’s club’ approach to recruitment in many City jobs. I also agree that, certainly in the central colleges, there’s a hideously elitist atmosphere, which is made worse by some of the traditions of the university.

However, diagnosing ‘Oxbridge’ as the major problem fundamentally misses the point. As Owen points out, the admissions offices of both universities have put in amazing work trying to rectify these inequalities, but comprehensive students just don’t apply. This is not a problem with Oxbridge, but with the secondary school system itself. Speaking to a student who was the first in ten or fifteen years to attend Oxbridge from a comprehensive school in Leicestershire, I discovered that her head of year, as well as her subject teachers, had told her ‘you won’t get in, people from this school don’t go to Cambridge’ – a prediction she defied. Also, as a friend studying Classics at Oxford points out, you can’t really claim that inequality in her subject is due to institutional bias – classics is 47% independent, but only 38% of state schools teach any classical subjects at all. Again, this is to do with limitations of the state system and which subjects are perceived to be ‘posh’ or ‘useful’, rather than Oxbridge elitism.

When this kind of negativity exists among the staff in schools, how can students receive the best possible education? Will teachers who don’t believe their best students capable of attending Oxbridge be able to inspire them to achieve the best they can?

This raises the question of whether Oxbridge is, in fact, ‘the best’. For many courses, it isn’t. I studied English, and while the course was wide-ranging and engaging, it was also very ‘safe’. Obviously, it takes its reputation for rigour seriously, so that (in the humanities at least, I can’t speak for science departments) it is slow to take up the latest research, in case it is embarrassed by following a dead end. Finally, the ‘traditionalist’ approach it prides itself in means that many subjects (mostly those attacked by the tabloids as ‘mickey mouse’) aren’t even offered – perhaps this is another reason for the low uptake from the comprehensive system?

Within ‘academia’, these idiosyncrasies are well known, so the ‘drive’ towards Oxbridge is again due to a wider cultural perception that it ‘opens doors’ – a self-fulfilling prophesy, and again one which is to do with the cultural position of Oxbridge within national narratives rather than problems with the universities themselves.

As a result, I agree that the idea of two monolithic institutions is one which should be banished from the national consciousness – but I don’t think that Owen’s suggestions will help in doing this. Offering places to the highest achieving students at each school, and the to 10% in the EMA eligibility group might help, but might also continue to perpetuate the myth that Oxbridge and the Russell Group are The Best.

Similarly, I would move in the opposite direction on the subject of interviews. I think that the idea that a private school education automatically gives you an advantage here is overly simplistic, and one which is patronizing towards the many bright, articulate people I know from a comprehensive background.

Even if there was a correlation between educational background and articulacy, at the less traditional college I attended there was a sense that the coached, assured, stereotypical private-school approach to interviews was looked down on. The interviewing tutors had seen it all before, and really wanted someone who was maybe less articulate but had interesting things to say, and could be creative with the material given them.

Rather than remove interviews, which after all are not automatically biased towards private school students, I would like to see them instituted at a short-list stage, if not for all courses, then at least for those which require discursive skills. This would level the playing field without the implicitly paternalistic attitude towards comprehensive school students.

That’s my fundamental problem with Owen’s article – even though the issues he raises are extremely important, his solutions overlook the broader issues. While there is still a wealthy elite with the expectation of getting into positions of power, they will do so, Oxbridge or no Oxbridge – private schools will still allow them to network, and those with ambitions towards City jobs will still congregate at expensive bars and black-tie social events within their universities.

It’s ultimately a difference in political outlook, but for me, the idea of using legislation to ‘force’ universities to be more representative represents everything that I find distasteful about the more authoritarian/paternalistic side of socialism. Enforced equality like this elides actual inequality, while patronizing those the policies are intended to help.

Finally, the best academics are ALREADY spread around UK institutions. Oxbridge, while very strong in many departments, does not have a monopoly on academic excellence. This is probably the most important issue to note, as Owen’s article does not differentiate between two functions of universities – the first of which is to provide vocational training for those who wish to continue in academia, and the second of which is to provide a necessary qualification on a CV for entering employment.

This elision is understandable, especially since the Coalition government’s education policy seems to entirely ignore the fact that universities are actually vocational institutions rather than just corporate training centres, but it is one which is vital to unpack within public narratives. Oxbridge DOES have excess influence in the latter category – but that is due to its tradition of having been so, rather than anything inherent to the institution itself.

In the end, the most important element of university education is that it is challenging for students and encourages original, rigourous thought. For this to be the case, there needs to be a transformation in the way that higher education is percieved by the public.

An out and out attack on Oxbridge as proposed by Owen will not achieve this – rather, it leads to the ‘us and them’ attitude being played out in twitter debates at the moment, where the label Oxbridge delegitimizes people in the eyes of those who view the institution as elitist just as much as it legitimizes them to potential employers in certain sectors. If we seek a more egalitarian system, we must achieve it by challenging stereotyping and unearned privilege at the same time. This will not be achieved solely through legislation, but rather through a concerted effort to treat people as people rather than types, and by continually re-stating the fact that universities themselves are already diverse – it is public opinion and convention which claims otherwise.

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