Owen Jones comments on today’s new research on university admissions in an article for the Guardian.
Oxbridge does not represent Britain’s best or the brightest: let’s just get that out of the way. Many of the country’s most intelligent, thoughtful and perceptive people do not attend either Oxford or Cambridge. Both institutions are instead, disproportionately, attended by the best performing slice of the most economically privileged teenagers in the country. So the figures released today, which elicit a depressing sense of deja vu, that eight top schools send as many pupils to Oxbridge as three-quarters of all schools and colleges put together, might be shocking, but they are unsurprising. So are the findings that top performing state school students are much less likely to apply than their private school equivalents, or that private school pupils were seven times more likely to win a place than comprehensive students.
Undoubtedly, one of the key reasons for the disparity is the resources available to private schools to “polish” up their students for the application process. I attended what was then the biggest sixth-form in the country, Stockport’s Ridge Danyers: the attitude among teachers towards applying to Oxbridge was very much: “Well, you might as well give it a go!” One did try to prepare me with a mock interview, which involved questions like “Why are you applying to Oxford? What are you extracurricular interests?” Bless them, but it was entirely counterproductive: imagine my shock when I sat down at my actual interview, in what seemed like a slightly sinister Harry Potter theme park, and an emeritus professor kicked off the proceedings with “Lenin was a German spy, wasn’t he?” It was always instantly possible to tell who was privately educated: they had a certain confidence and posture built into them by their schooling.
And many bright comprehensive school recoil in horror at the very thought of applying. Again, my sixth-form understood this, and brought back a former sixth-form pupil attending Oxford for the sole purpose of trying to persuade us that a Brideshead Revisited dystopia didn’t beckon. Few of us actually knew much about that place – I confess, I thought “Oxbridge” was its own university, and the Oxbridge colleges on University Challenge were separate from the universities themselves – and arriving for the interviews was a far bigger culture shock than visiting France for the first time. At the end of the experience, we sat in the Mitre pub recalling song lyrics about how we felt about the place (“in the words of Thom Yorke, ‘I don’t belong here’,” offered one).
I was one of a handful from my sixth-form to get in, and – like most of the comprehensive pupils, let alone anyone else who attends – I am no working-class hero: my dad had a white collar job at Sheffield city council, my mum was an IT lecturer at Salford University. Yet even I, from a northern, public sector, middle-class background, initially had a profound, sometimes debilitating sense of imposter syndrome, that there would be a tap on the shoulder at any moment to explain that “I’m sorry there’s been a dreadful mistake we let you in by accident” which was not helped by fellow private school alumni making barbed comments like “comprehensive school students only get in because of quotas”. That’s not to say this was three years of trauma – I had some of my happiest days there – but it’s unsurprising that an Old Etonian feels at home dressing up in an absurd costume for exams (you got turned away if you wore the wrong shoes).
There are genuine attempts by Oxbridge authorities to widen access. I think of Alan Rusbridger, former Guardian editor turned principal of Lady Margaret Hall, who launched a fantastic scheme to attract young people from less privileged backgrounds. But there are such profound structural problems that are very difficult to overcome. If you grow up in an overcrowded house, suffer the stresses poverty can place on family life, sometimes have gone hungry or had a poor diet, and don’t have parents with huge “cultural capital” – like owning lots of books – then the odds are stacked against you from day one.
The educational segregation of children according to the bank balances of their parents – private education – needs to be abolished. But in the interim, it has always struck me that the only solution is to automatically enrol the best performing students from state school, taking class into account. If you grow up in a deprived ex-mining community and get two As and two Bs at A-level, you have outperformed someone at Harrow or Eton from a family of millionaires who gets four As. And until Oxbridge does this, it needs to stop pretending it represents Britain’s academic elite: because it doesn’t.