How to democratise Oxbridge


5:12 pm - May 20th 2010

by Dave Osler    


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Actually I do have a problem with the term ‘Oxbridge Mafia’. It is just so unfair to the Cosa Nostra, which at least welcomes working class applicants and is sufficiently discreet to ensure that members keep schtum about their adherence.

By contrast, the graduates of our elite universities flaunt their education for all to see, and make no pretence of their desire to monopolise every leading position in politics. Take, for instance, the Labour Party leadership race.

Runners so far include David Miliband, who has a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford; his brother Ed Miliband, who has a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford; and Ed Balls, who has a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford.

Just to inject some variety into the proceedings, Andy Burnham and Diana Abbott did at least go to Cambridge, which  makes them les damnes de la terre in this context.

Whoever wins the contest will face a government headed by David Cameron, who has a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford, and Nick Clegg, who went to Cambridge. Incidentally, some 70% of the ministers in Con Dem administration are Oxbridge educated.

Not that I’m prejudiced against the bastards, honest. Indeed, I was out drinking with a posse of them last night, including the two excellent former Oxford lawyers who acted for me pro bono in my recent libel case.

The ex missus got a double first from Cambridge, while the last girlfriend but one got a first from the same place, although I’m not quite sure what the distinction is there.

I grant that the typical product of Oxbridge is extremely bright. There’s little doubt about that. Even the ones that come out with a third, after spending three years thrashing restaurants when not punting up and down the Cherwell, strike me as clever, at least in the sense of not actually dumb.

Most of them, in my experience, are personable as well. In the majority they are public schoolies, although that is not universally the case. A handful genuinely are from ordinary backgrounds.

The question is, does this matter, or am I just thinking like a chippy provincial grammar school boy who didn’t make the cut? I guess the main point here is that a place at Oxford or Cambridge is itself a privilege, in so far as it is almost a guarantee of career success.

Yet survey after survey has shown that entry procedures are stacked in favour of a small minority of elite fee-paying schools, which are themselves by definition unavailable to the majority of the population.

The entire mechanism designedly perpetuates class divisions, and that situation will only be exacerbated by the trends towards allowing top higher education providers to charge ever-higher fees.

It’s not that the left should not advocate that existing centres of excellence be torn down, of course. The provision of world class education is something that should be encouraged, while efforts are made to level other universities up.

The question is how to achieve democratisation in the meantime. The abolition of private education would be just fine by me, but is politically a non-starter. That onlyleaves positive discrimination, and we all know the drawbacks with that.

But unless anyone has got any better ideas, Oxbridge should be forced to apply it on a massive scale, just so the other 99% of us occasionally get a look in.

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Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments


1. Laurie Penny

Oh gawd Dave I’m going to do a response to this, for total.

(Double first means you got a first in your baby first-year exams as well as your finals).

Brighton College, wasn’t it, Laurie?

Just saying.

“In the majority they are public schoolies, although that is not universally the case. A handful genuinely are from ordinary backgrounds.”

Not sure what you’re driving at here. Are you saying that the people from Oxbridge you meet are public schoolies? Maybe that’s just because of the circles you move in? While I recognise that the 50-50 split between state and private isn’t representative – especially when grammar schools are factored into the state part of that – not everyone at the universities is a real “rah”.

There’s plenty of people from ordinary backgrounds, I guess they just don’t flock to the City in quite the same way after they graduate and get pushed out of the picture.

“Yet survey after survey has shown that entry procedures are stacked in favour of a small minority of elite fee-paying schools, which are themselves by definition unavailable to the majority of the population.”

I’m not sure that’s entirely true. In my experience, most Oxbridge colleges are falling over themselves to improve access. It hasn’t worked, of course, but I think it’s far more cock-up more than conspiracy.

The problem with Oxbridge entry is not that it’s biased, it’s that it’s arbitrary. It’s based on what a couple of interviewers happen to think about you – so your choice of college and the mood of the interviewer on the day will have a huge impact on whether you get in.

I’m a Cambridge graduate, but there are half a dozen colleges that I’m fairly certain would never have taken me. That kind of knowledge is something you only acquire by spending three years in the place, you can’t pick it up from a prospectus.

Also, I resent the idea that an Oxbridge degree means you can just sleepwalk to success. Where was the old boy’s network when I needed it, hmmm?

The major difference I found (having applied to Oxford on a punt, and thinking I fluffed the interview – really shocked to have got in) was the level of confidence between the public school crowd and those who went to state. It seemed that the ‘public schoolies’ were simply told that they could do it, whereas the rest of us were, like me, a bit shocked to be allowed in. So it seems to me the major problem is in schools actually giving people the self-belief to apply in the first place, though maybe that’s only one part of the puzzle.

6:
“The major difference I found (having applied to Oxford on a punt, and thinking I fluffed the interview – really shocked to have got in) was the level of confidence between the public school crowd and those who went to state.”

Yes, that, a thousand times that.

Sadly that advantage continues well into real life as well, I suspect. I know some complete idiots who, thanks to going to the right schools, nonetheless have such rampant self-belief that their total lack of ability has never been an issue.

As Jonn said, a lot of the problem isn’t that no effort is being made for access. However I don’t think the problem is incompetence either. The numbers getting in from state and private education are in line with the numbers applying, and it’s this latter aspect that needs to be addressed.

If you’re bright and in a selective school, teachers will push you to do even better. It’s the sad case that in a majority of state schools the drive for striving to Oxbridge doesn’t come from the school, but from the odd teacher you’re lucky to get, or the odd parent who pushes and supports.

At the end of the day, Oxbridge selects on academic qualities, and those who were lucky enough to have the extra lessons or support from a school (private or state funded) are more likely to get in. What’s needed is a better, more supportive state secondary education system where those with potential can be found, nurtured and pushed to achieve the best they can.

The problem with Oxbridge entry is not that it’s biased, it’s that it’s arbitrary. It’s based on what a couple of interviewers happen to think about you…

This is actually a result of the desire to broaden access. Given that everyone who is likely to benefit from an Oxbridge education is likely to get 3 As at A level, they need to find an alternative way of governing entry. The old way was the entrance exam, which at least enabled dons to see how you thought and wrote, and they could then give you the old ‘2 E offer’.

But this was thought (probably fairly) to give too much of an advantage to independent schools, which could prepare students for the entrance exam in a way that state schools didn’t/couldn’t. Some schools even had a 7th term in the sixth form specifically to prepare for it.

So they binned it in favour of the interview system. Which also gives too much of an advantage to independent schools, which both prepare students for it and, crucially, are more likely to turn out students confident (arrogant?) enough to perform well in an academic interview.

And only swankpots talk about getting double firsts. As if anyone cared what your results in mods were.

I have taught at Oxford colleges (Brasenose, Pembroke), and at various other universities (LSE, Southampton, QMW).

My students at Oxford were just stunning. Head and shoulders over the students at the other universities. I had one or two students at the other places who even began to compare with the average student I taught at Oxford. Brilliance was the norm at Oxford, but the exception elsewhere.

Sorry for rantery; this is a subject on which a lot of arse is talked and which I’m touchy about – not least because I’m aware that every piece on “oooh, Oxbridge public school toffs” puts normal kids off applying, despite the fact that it really isn’t like that any more (yes, there are failings – see below).

Even the ones that come out with a third, after spending three years thrashing restaurants when not punting up and down the Cherwell

Rare by the late 1990s, never mind now – if you’re not on course for at least a 2:2 then, exceptional circumstances aside, they’ll kick you out long before you reach finals. Both universities have serious academic exams every term, with suspension and expulsion as punishments for multiple fails without mitigation.

In the majority they are public schoolies, although that is not universally the case. A handful genuinely are from ordinary backgrounds.

No, that’s actively untrue (sentence 1). The vast majority are from institutions that were grammar schools before the 1970s, not from public schools.

A few % are ex-public school (I’d be interested to see the data on exactly how many, somewhere between 10-20% I’d expect), then quite a lot of private (ie ex-grammar, not public school) kids (raises hands), then “state school with good overall results” kids (who’ve been the largest group for over 10 years).

The enormous attempts (in which I was involved at the time I was there) that both institutions have made over the last 20 years to widen admissions have mostly succeeded in bringing in more “good state school” kids at the expense of “public school” and “private ex-grammar” kids. This is definitely an improvement on before, but hasn’t done much to counter the upper-middle-class-ness of most Oxbridge graduates.

The problem is, with a few exceptions at the ‘very toff’ and ‘proudly Northern’ ends of the spectrum (and even there, I know quite a few people who affecting one or the other extreme in adult life while coming from the other), I’d take good money that you’d fail to correctly guess the state-vs-private school status of either the people I was at Oxford with in 1997-2000, and even more so the people I know who’ve graduated recently.

That’s partly because of the patterns of speaking and thinking you pick up at Oxbridge – but also because the “good state school” kids tend to have articulate middle-class parents, generally along the lines of most LC contributors (including any potential Bandlings) – i.e. parents who wouldn’t send their kids to private school of any kind, but still view education as about the most important thing there is. Because they’re the kids who tend to go to state schools and get good A-levels.

This is not, fundamentally, a problem with Oxbridge’s admissions system – it’s a problem with Britain’s education system (and before the right-wing troll-bus gets on board, the same problem also applied under grammar schools – the pupils who got into state grammars and who got the best results were the ones with the wealthiest, most educated parents). I agree that this needs addressed – but I’d question the ability to do this through university quotas at 18, and seriously question the motives of someone who blamed Oxbridge for the wider problem.

@3-10, yes, I agree with all of these, and you’re faster writers than me.

Dave Osler:

The abolition of private education would be just fine by me

Yes.

but is politically a non-starter.

But why? Has the case ever been made (other than by the SWP/Respect/etc gang)? If 7% of the population go to fee-paying schools it’s hardly likely to alienate a massive bunch of the electorate for one thing.

14. Charlie 2

If you want poor children to enter the top 5-10 universities , it helps if their teachers come from those institutions . If a teacher comes from an ex-poly with a general science degree or not one in the subject they are teaching; it is unlikely they will prepare their pupils adequately. One teacher is not enough in a school, there needs to be teachers from these top universities in all the subjects, especially maths, physics, chemistry and biology. If one looks at the most academic schools , the head of department will often have a masters or a doctorate from a top university.

Historically many grammar schools were more academic than most public schools , except for Winchester, Westminster, St Pauls – girls and boys, Haberdashers . Eton,Harrow and most public school relied upon the scholars for academic ability.

Most comprehensive schools do not have enough good teachers. Perhaps what LEAs should do is have a group of teachers whose job is to prepare pupils from comprehensives for entry into the top 10 universities. At public schools there are scholarship streams with teachers who prepare pupils for Oxbridge, medical school, IC, LSE and UCL.

Curiously, little mention is made of this illuminating research coming from Warwick Uni:

“The UK’s most expensive private schools are producing pupils who achieve the worst grades at university, according to research. An eight-year study of graduates’ results by researchers at the University of Warwick suggests that the more parents pay in school fees, the less chance their children have of getting a good degree.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/2552523.stm

FWIW in my aged state – I graduated 50 years ago this year – my impression is that while some very bright folk graduate out of Oxbridge, more than a few graduates are very average.

The whole private v state maintained schools issue is greatly overblown. I’ve posted here before that within walking distance of where I sit, there are two maintained selective boys grammar schools which regularly achieve better average A-level results than Eton and there’s a girl’s grammar school which gets better A-level results a bus ride away.

Check out the A-level league table for schools in England in 2009 and readers can find a goodly sprinkling of maintained schools near the top:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/8439634.stm

Is there any reason to think that the education at Oxbridge is any better than at other universities? Or is it just that the cleverest people get selected to go there? We know they are packed with world-class scholars, but world-class scholars can sometimes be poor teachers, especially of undergraduates. The advantage of having an Oxbridge degree is that people know you were clever when you were 18, not that you have been made clever while you were there.

Maybe people who don’t apply to Oxbridge because they don’t think they would like the life there (which indeed they might not) are being sensible: they can get as good an education in more agreeable surroundings nearer home.

The question of what good Oxbridge is to the body politic as a whole is a different one. Arguably, it serves no useful purpose whatever, takes the brightest students away from other universities, and creates an elite of very questionable quality. Keep them as research and postgraduate universities, and let all the undergraduates go to a proper university.

ex missus got a double first from Cambridge, while the last girlfriend but one got a first from the same place, although I’m not quite sure what the distinction is there

Zilch. It’s a bit like describing your History A-level grade as a ‘double B’ because you got a B in it and also got a B in History GCSE. The result in the only exams which count, and bit of paper which goes on your toilet wall, is exactly the same in the supposedly ‘double’ case.

I’d ban the phrase ‘double first’ for ever. (From which weirdly strongly held opinion observant readers will be able to work out my university career in some detail.)

“Is there any reason to think that the education at Oxbridge is any better than at other universities?”

I was interested to compare my son’s experience of the tutorial system at Oxford with my own at a Russell Group university many decades earlier. FWIW my impression is that my son had a more pressured self-tuition experience from the requirement to write regular essays for fortnightly tutorials than I had and he soon conformed with what seems to be a stronger tradition in Oxbridge that attending lectures is mostly a waste of time. For some at least, the discipline of writing essays for the tutorial system fosters valuable skills for many careers.

19. Yurrzem!

“It’s not that the left should not advocate that existing centres of excellence be torn down, of course. The provision of world class education is something that should be encouraged, while efforts are made to level other universities up.”

Good point, but not expanded upon adequately. Instead this piece is a massive oversimplification and a trite rehashing of old saws. Its a pity because there are real concerns about the future for HE in this country thanks to Labour’s cuts and the uncertain future under Nick ‘n’ Dave.

Its easy to denigrate a lot of what now goes on in humanities departments across the land (Media Studies, anyone?) but we now know that Middlesex Uni’s top-ranked philosophy department looks like being axed. Did they ask too many awkward questions?

That’s exactly the point: We need people who can think critically and creatively across the board, sciences and humanities. How will that happen when government grants are being cut? For goodness sake, its an investment in our future!

I would absolutely agree with the comment that people from working class backgrounds and – in my experience – a lot of northern towns, are put off going to Oxbridge by the snobbish reputation that precedes both universities. They’re seen as a class apart, though I’ve always found graduates of both to be both pleasant and intelligent, and mostly not snobs.

21. Nick Cohen is a Tory

In the 19C most of Britains finest went into the foreign service.
Most Oxbridge alumuni enter either academia in subjects that have little relevance to creating wealth, politics and journalism.
Many get jobs in journalism solely because of their Oxbridge education like my moniker.
The best journos we have in this country are in sports. Most have worked hard in through a tough apprentice. ,It was not handed on plate like most of the Oxbridge columnists, not unlike nasty Nick
Perhaps if a few more had lived on a minimum wage they could then emphasise with the low or middle paid
Also if you go to the states, the two universities that represent their elite are MIT and the Harvard middle school.
the problem is that are academic elite would rather get a first in the classics and then a cushy job at the Telegraph or Standpoint writing crusty articles that classroom assistants on 15.000 should accpet a pay cut while their enjoying their 3 hour liquid lunch break or in Cohen’s case 4 hour.

22. George W Potter

As an ex-private school pupil myself I’m aware that my views may differ from the standard left wing view on this, however, I support the continuation of private schools.

For example, I have asperger syndrome, not severely but enough to have an impact on my life. After being diagnosed my father discovered that the state system would either put me in one of the local state schools (huge class sizes, poor facilities where anyone struggling generally got ignored) or to send me off to a school specifically meant for the severely disabled – in short, completely unnecessary and unsuited for someone like me.

Fortunately my father was able to find a private school which I went to as a foundationer with the school charity paying for my fees because I met the terms which the founder had laid out.

Now, if private schools were to simply be shut down, aside from losing the facilities and the disruption it would cause to the education of thousands (not to mention the increased cost as the taxpayer would now have to pay for the students’ education), it would do nothing to change the underlying problem with the state system.

My cousins on my mother’s side come from fairly wealthy middle class families and they go to the local state school. Why? Because it is modern, has good class sizes, good facilities and good results. If the local state schools are good enough then people have no inclination to send their children to private schools.

A far better solution is to improve the state system so that there is no need for private schools, it seems very authoritarian to me to shut down schools simply because the pupils are from the wrong social class. The private system generally produces a better quality education and a better ethos than state schools and it would be wrong to close them in a misguided act of class warfare. Your efforts would be much better directed at improving state education instead.

I can tell you, from what I’ve seen, that the main difference in education between private and state is the quality of the teaching facilities (the private school I went to had eight laboratories for about 600 pupils, the state: two labs for 2000) and the way in which they were run. My school required students to take the three sciences at GCSEs, one foreign language, maths, english language and literature, one humanities and the rest were free choice. After that it was hardly surprising how many of them went on to do sciences at A level and then science based degrees at top universities.

If you want to remedy the problem, give state schools the facilities, class sizes and teaching ethos that private schools have. Please do end the disparity in the education system but do it by improving schools, not by shutting them down.

@20: “I would absolutely agree with the comment that people from working class backgrounds and – in my experience – a lot of northern towns, are put off going to Oxbridge by the snobbish reputation that precedes both universities.”

Try this published essay by George Orwell: North And South, written 1936 – in fact, it’s virtually chp. 7 of his book, The Road to Wigan Pier:
http://www.george-orwell.org/North_And_South/0.html

I rather like this bit:

“There is nevertheless a real difference between North and South, and there is at least a tinge of truth in that picture of Southern England as one enormous Brighton inhabited by lounge-lizards. For climatic reasons the parasitic dividend-drawing class tend to settle in the South. In a Lancashire cotton-town you could probably go for months on end without once hearing an ‘educated’ accent, whereas there can hardly be a town in the South of England where you could throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop.”

I could be wrong but I get the feeling that in many respects, not too much has changed since Orwell wrote that essay.

On criminalising private schools:

“But why? Has the case ever been made (other than by the SWP/Respect/etc gang)? If 7% of the population go to fee-paying schools it’s hardly likely to alienate a massive bunch of the electorate for one thing.”

This would only be possible if state education was able to compete, in general, with the quality of private education. There are excellent state schools and there are awful private schools, but (on the whole) if someone is paying a huge amount of money for their child to be educated, it’s because they know that the alternative is poor. So bad, in fact, that they are willing to pay twice. (People buy private medical insurance for the same reason.)

If the Left ever gives up its intense, unreasoning, quasi-religious hatred of academic selection, then the good state schools will be able to return. Once that happens, only a few people with more money than sense will bother with private education, because good education will be available to all, rather than being restricted to the wealthy.

25. Nick Cohen is a Tory

Charlie 2
What makes you think a first class degree at Oxbridge will make a good teacher.
The problem is that teaching is staffed by highly qualified ding bats who can’t teach and have no presence.
My lecturers at university were useless. I doubt they would last two minutes in classroom.
As a school governor, we have just had to bring competency charges against a poor chap who got a first in modern languages at Oxford. He could not emphasise with the kids and his teaching technique consisted of writing notes from a book and then asking the kids to copy them. Good teachers have presence, can communicate, plan activities that inspire and emphasize with the children
Our headteacher in a private conversation as remarking that the PGCE is a waste of time and if they want to improve teaching standards , the course must be based on the medical profession.
Interviews on how they communicate ideas as well as subject knowledge at the start and then constant weeding out of those who cannot make the grade

Surely the point here is that in the good old days the labour party was more rooted in the working classes, and you could work your way to the top via trade union work, education, and so on, whereas for the last decade or more the party has been dominated by professional politics wonks.
Is there any way the party can be opened back up again to a broader spectrum of people?

Oxbridge is irrelevant if you actually have a functioning mas party of the people with its own ways of promotion and education. But when these are missing and the political climate favours smart educated people who went to the same university and have been in politics all their life, of course it becomes a bone of contention.

28. Nick Cohen is a Tory

It also amazes me when talking about teaching standards there is a discussion about teaching standards.
They usually are the same teachers. Their is a lot flitting from one to another.
Our current deputy head worked in independent school.
Talking to him, the major difference is the lack of disruptive pupils in those schools. Hence the reason why parents send their kids to private schools.
In private schools they get rid of disruptive pupils very easily, in state schools it is far more harder

29. Nick Cohen is a Tory

Sorry
I should have said
It also amazes me when talking about private versus state, there is a discussion about teaching standards

I was the first person in my family to go to university, went to the local comp (Hinchingbrooke, Huntingdon–a fantastic school in those days under the Headship of Peter Downes), got in to Oxford (doing the exam entrance!), was at Magdalen in George Osborne’s year, and now I’m back here in Oxford University as a don. I hate the suggestion that my hard-earned success should be held against me because I’m part of some Oxford Mafia. I certainly don’t remember an initiation ceremony, just an amazing chance to expand my mind.

And, yes, now I’m on the other side of the interview desk I realize I’m certainly working for greater access, even if the collegiate nature of the university means inevitably that efforts are diffused and can appear patchy. But there’s genuine good will. Our problem is that the best schools turn out the best students and, as with most things, you get what you pay for…

It’s not that the interview itself is stacked in favour of the public school kids, they just–on average–know more, have a greater level of educational experience, and larger vocabularies because their entire peer group comprises similarly highly educated, focused kids of rich people. It would be unfair to their achievements to discriminate against them.

In my view the best thing would be for bright, poor kids to be sent to Westminster at age 11. But Labour abolished the Assisted Places scheme so that only the rich can now benefit from the best schooling. This, in my view, should change. Schools, not universities, perpetuate privilege. Of course, those who don’t like this idea will decry it as selection by the back door, with the rest left to rot. But we already _have_ selection, it’s just by wallet and ability rather than raw ability.

Very rarely am I made angry by a blog post. However, I completely resent your specific mention of Oxford, and in particular the PPE.

What is wrong with politicians being educated in Oxford and doing the PPE? They are clearly then people who know what they are talking about, are passionate about politics, and want to pursue a career in it. Granted, not true for every single applicant, but a good majority of them.

Why am I angry? Because I am someone who has been offered a place in Oxford University to do the PPE course. And I am someone who wants to become a politician in the future. Why should I feel like I should be ashamed to do the PPE course at Oxford and go into politics? And, by the way, I am not rich – my family is working class, and I am completely state educated.

Ah, you might say, but the vast majority of people who go to Oxford are private educated. Yes, I won’t disagree with you there, and there lies the problem of private education. But why the hell bring Oxford or the PPE into it? The problem is with private education and its restriction on equality of opportunity; Oxford simply takes in those with the best potential, and I’m testament to that.

It just so frustrates me that you even bring in Oxford to the argument on equality of opportunity, because you make those who have genuinely worked hard for it, and who haven’t had the same opportunities as everyone, feel like they should be ashamed of it. I hope to join the Labour Party; I hope to have a degree in the PPE. Is that a reason for you not to vote for me as a Labour leader one-day? I bloody hope not.

This article is wrong-headed, because it doesn’t acknowledge the basic problem: that not enough bright students from the state sector apply to Oxbridge, which actually admits the same proportion of state applicants as apply.

here’s a little piece, from somebody educated in the state sector, then Oxford, who did outreach work, and actually knows what they are talking about:

http://badconscience.com/2010/05/20/the-truth-about-oxbridge-admissions-a-reply-to-dave-osler/

David T @ 10 gave me a good laugh with this gem:

“Brilliance was the norm at Oxford”

On David Osler’s topic though, I don’t think positive discrimination would necessarily be any more politically popular than the abolition of private education. Only thing you can do really is dispel the various myths about Oxbridge, and try and raise the quality of state education so that more state-schooled kids can compete with their privately educated contemporaries. Though I suspect that’s a losing battle.

“Why am I angry? Because I am someone who has been offered a place in Oxford University to do the PPE course. And I am someone who wants to become a politician in the future. Why should I feel like I should be ashamed to do the PPE course at Oxford and go into politics? And, by the way, I am not rich – my family is working class, and I am completely state educated.”

Because it’s currently fashionable to say you are against machine politicians, without realising that machine politicians are essential to the basic functioning of democracies.

Learn to live with it mate. Also, don’t mention too often that you did PPE at Oxford. It really gets up people’s noses. Trust me, I know.

@ Stephen Wan

‘I hope to join the Labour Party; I hope to have a degree in the PPE. Is that a reason for you not to vote for me as a Labour leader one-day? I bloody hope not.’

You are evidently a very ambitious young man …

Why aim low? Haha :P.

It’s the principle though. Whether this country is ready for a Labour leader with a foreign sounding surname is another question. My guess is no.

The fact that the Labour elite are all Oxbridge tosspots (I’m not, technically, as my primary Alma Mater is QUB) is not a reflection on Oxbridge – nor does it denote their brilliance. Talk to any of them in a straight-up political conversation and the only thing they can do better than anyone else is avoid the question. But they get that from climbing political ladders, not being at Oxbridge.

My problem with the Labour heirarchy is not that they went to Oxbridge universities, but that their policies suck and they climbed up the greasy pole that is centred around London – whether moving through as research assistants, as senior Fabians or whatever, inheriting a particularly irritating vocabulary as they went. One option would be to give these positions to non-Oxbridge types, who don’t find it easy to break into this world, but the other key is to reduce London-centricity.

When normal people in Lancashire or Yorkshire or Cornwall or the outlying areas of Scotland see a reason to be part of such groups, then you’ll find normal people joining up, and normal people elected to senior positions – and these normal people having to make reference to other, normal members and not to the London/Oxbridge luvvies who’ve basically spent their university years figuring out whose ass to kiss and which policy to embrace to climb the greasy ladder.

“Yet survey after survey has shown that entry procedures are stacked in favour of a small minority of elite fee-paying schools”

I doubt that this is true and that survey certainly doesn’t suggest it. Suppose that Oxbridge admissions are completely unbiased selectors of the best students, we would still expect students from elite private schools to dominate selection because the effect of an elite education (as well as all the benefits of a privileged social background), simply because such schools produce objectively better qualified students. It’s all the accrued advantage of a privileged position in society (and study after study has shown the direct link this has on educational outcome) that makes private school students more likely to get in to (and crucially apply to) Oxbridge.

Just to pre-empt one common counter-argument: we can’t suppose that Oxbridge (if being fair) should select for the ‘naturally most able’ students, who we might assume would be equally distributed amongst the population, thus selecting much worse-performing state students over less naturally gifted, higher attaining private school students. This is because by 18, much of a student’s actual educational potentially will have been determined, so regardless of sheer natural ability, a privately educated student who’s been well trained will in actuality be more likely to achieve highly in their Oxbridge degree than a more innately able, but unchallenged state school student. It’s perfectly fair that Oxbridge select for those who will actually do best on their degrees, the injustice in the situation lies in the wider social situation.

-A grammar school, Cambridge graduate

Just to reinforce the point made above: a “double first” means not a lot.

You can only get them at Cambridge, and if you do Classics at Oxford.

Of course, if I’d got a first in baby first-year exams (or a “distinction” as they are now known) i’d think differently. But hey-ho, it’s clearly a bunch of bullcrap.

(Stupid compulsory maths component of economics exam ruining my chance to gloat…)

@Dave Semple

Oh wonderful, so now as someone who comes from London, and who wants to join a think-tank to get some policy ideas before I go into Politics (e.g. the Fabian Society), I’m not a normal person and I’m predestined to climb the greasy ladder? How bloody ironic, as I’m someone who’s consistently argued against the idea of politics being based around one area, am now being told actually, I would have been better off being born somewhere else.

Newsflash – I didn’t choose where I was going to be born or raised, but here I am, and I’ll be damned if I get told that my position is worthless because I didn’t happen to be born in Cornwall.

41. Charlieman

I can’t help noticing that this thread has ignored science and engineering. If you are 18 and filling in your UCAS form for a discipline in those areas, you could probably find five courses at non-Oxbridge universities that outstrip the famous two. When I was a UG thirty years ago, students studied engineering at Cambridge because it was Cambridge; if you were passionate about engineering, you studied elsewhere. (Cambridge has massively improved engineering teaching since then, I must note.)

at Stephen @39,

Dave Semple went to Oxford.

Also, he isn’t talking about people born in London. He’s talking about people who spend their adult careers in and around Westminster, climbing the greasy pole.

And he’s got a bloody good point about how bad that is for our politics.

43. Charlie 2

25 Nick cohen is a tory. Many good schools used to teach to above A level standards. When it came to studying maths, medicine , engineering or science at top universities pupils needed A and b grades in A levels in a choice of maths, further maths , physics, chemistry and biology, often with an S Level as well. Teachers with B.Eds or a general science degree ( say Chemistry and Biology ) from an ex-poly are often not able to teach to high enough standards for the top universities. This is made worse if the teacher has a degree in say chemistry and has to teach physics for entry to say Cambridge or Imperial.
In addition, if the teachers have been to the top universities it make them easier to instill confidence in the pupils to apply.

Industrial amounts of arguing of the toss and “yeah but”.

Yet the fact remain that, in 2010, our alleged “classless” or “almost classless” British society has produced a political elite that is the most cliquey and elitist in a very long time, and that applies across the whole political spectrum.

How can anyone not think there’s a slight problem with having 4/5 of the government (both Tories and LibDems) either from Oxford or Cambridge and most of them from an very wealthy background?

How can it be alright to have practically every Labour candidate with an almost identical academic and “professional” career, Oxford+Public Research+MP+Blair/Brown Government?

How can anyone be alright with a government with less women (4 out of 30) than most European countries and one person only from an ethnic minority (Baroness Warsi)? Women make up over 50% of our population yet only 10% are in government and only one with a “substantial” post.
Similar stuff with Labour’s wannabe leaders.

The pool these people are drawn from is incredibly restricted. I don’t know how anyone can dispute that.

45. Diogenes

just commenting as an alumnus of Oxford whose daughter was educated in the Weslh Valleys comprehensive system…she is undoubtedly intelligent enough to be an Oxford student, but her school neither fostered her ability nor give her the encouragement she needed to make a realistic application. I ought to feel let down by the inability of the local school system to nurure her intellect. the scool seems designed to create robots. That is the real failing.

46. Diogenes

41 of course you would have chosen Imperial College….so what…there is an extablished elitism. In France, they at least systematise it to les grandes ecoles…but it is still a lottery as to who gets in.

47. the a&e charge nurse

[45] yes, isn’t that the real problem – instead of fixating on Oxbridge, shouldn’t we be more concerned about the wide variation in the rest of the educational system?

Put crudely the odds are heavily stacked against kids educated in deprived areas (and always have been).

48. Official Opposition

Right, better declare my interests first of all:

I was educated at a private school (ex-grammar, full of people who wanted to pretend they weren’t privileged. Obviously they were, but it wasn’t eactly Eton – no aristocrats there).

I graduated with a degree in English from Oxford, I am currently studying for a Master’s at Bristol.

Is there a difference in the quality of education between Oxbridge and the Russell Group? Yes. I’m not sure if the quality of acdemics is radically different, or even in many of the students (people with Firsts from Oxford are exceptional, I suspect good students at Russell Group universities would acheive a 2.1 in their subject from Oxbridge). This may not be true for all subjects at all institutions, but it is the case with English. The workload at Oxford is just so much greater. Bristol English undergraduates write about 8 essays a year, at Oxford I wrote at least that many a term. It is inevitable that if you are doing that much more work, provided you are capable of maintaining teh workload, you will develop yourself more in that academic discipline.

I resent this suggestion that if you have an Oxbridge degree, then you have it made for life. This may still be true in some areas (politics, law, the civil service, academia, journalism to an extent), but elsewhere the notion’s claptrap. After graduating it took me 11 months to get offered a job, for which I was paid only £7 an hour (not much above minimum wage, below the living wage for London). Nor was my situation unusual: nearly all my contemporaries were either unemployed or working the sort of jobs you do in a gap year. I know we had a recession on, but if this Oxbridge mafia were true, you would have thought that Oxford graduates would still be able to get graduate jobs.

However, there is a problem with Oxbridge. I agree that you can’t blame its selection policy on the faults of secondary education, but talking to friends who come from working class families without a history of high educational acheivement, I know that they can often feel out of place, even that they don’t deserve to be there. Now Oxford is a stressful place and I think everyone can feel inadequate studying there, so it’s possible that these people attribute feelings everyone has to their own particular class background. Until it comes to be seen as a normal thing to apply to Oxbridge, this perception will persist. It’s definitely true that those who were privately educated (or at grammar schools or the exceptionally good state schools) tend to have more intellectual self-confidence.

With regards to politicians, I don’t think the problem is that they were educated at Oxbridge (though a diversity of experience obviously helps to make parliament more representative of and in touch with the electorate as a whole). Andy Burnham comes from a working class background, so I don’t see why the fact that he went to Cambridge proves anything other than that he’s a clever man. The problem is that so many prominent politicians, including Burnham, have little or no experience in their adult lives outside of professional politics (and being a commerical lawyer or a PR executive isn’t much better).

Finally, on the subject of ‘Double Firsts’, as I understand it, they refer to different parts of Tripos exam, both of which count towards the final grade, and so tehrefore are a legitimate term. However, I didn’t go to Cambridge, so I am happy to be corrected on this.

49. Roger Mexico

I don’t like to be sarky (he lied) but I find it odd that Stephen Wan @ 31 is supposed to be bright enough to get into Oxford to do “the PPE” but hasn’t worked out yet that you can be a member of the Labour Party (which he “hopes to join”) at fifteen.

Of course the truth is that like most of the current elite he sees it as a career path and PPE + Labour is no different than Business + pwc or whatever. Mind you if he’d had a private education he’d have learnt to disguise that by now.

50. Charlieman

@46 Diogenes: “41 of course you would have chosen Imperial College…”

As I wrote in my post, an 18 year old picking engineering and science courses would have five options beyond Oxbridge (or four if you include IC in the elite class). Some of those courses will be delivered by the post-1992 universities (ie polytechnics). 30 years ago, if you really wanted to become a marine engineer/designer, you applied to a poly to get world class training.

@ Roger Mexico,

Kudos for working out I’m not yet a member of the Labour Party. Reason? I didn’t support the New Labour project whole-heartedly. Erosion of civil liberties, Iraq etc. Can anyone blame me for not wanting to be associated with that at the age of 15?

But I don’t like it when people tell me why I’ve chosen to do something. I chose PPE & politics not because its a career, but because I have a genuine belief its the best way to help people, especially the least well off. And I think the Labour Party is one that most reflects my beliefs, past 13 years aside. I’m sure if I did have a private education I would have disguised it, but thank goodness I didn’t, because I’m glad of the education I’ve had and the people I’ve met.

Call me ideological. Call me naive. But I really, really I’m not like those elites you talk about.

One way to improve the admissions in Oxbridge would be to use randomised selection – choose the entrants randomly from those who are qualified (which is a lot more than those who are chosen). The interview system isn’t particularly good anyway – it selects many people who aren’t particularly good and rejects many people who are (from my experience of it).

“But I really, really I’m not like those elites you talk about.”

Yet….

(joke)

54. Charlieman

@48 Official Opposition: “…but talking to friends who come from working class families without a history of high educational acheivement, I know that they can often feel out of place, even that they don’t deserve to be there.”

I was a grammar school lad and I knew my place; my granddad was the school cleaner. The headmaster invited me into his study to ask why I had not applied for Oxbridge. I wouldn’t have fitted in.

This year, I have clocked up 17 years of service at a red brick university. I have met some profoundly intelligent people and some sloggers. But I fit in.

@24

Well for what it’s worth I’d advocate state spending c. £28K p/term p/pupil for the state sector to get standards up to scratch ;) then we’d see about closing down Eton and other centres of elitism. :D

@51

I chose PPE & politics not because its a career, but because I have a genuine belief its the best way to help people, especially the least well off.

Say what now? How the heckers is studying PPE at Oxford helping the “least well off”? Sorry if it offends you but you sound mighty careerist.

[just to be clear: there are other routes to working in politics other than the tried and tested Labservatcrat road of PPE/Oxford/think-tank policy-wonk/MP intern/MP/Minister.... ok, not many, but there are!]

58. Roger Mexico

@ Stephen Wan

Well good for you if that’s what you feel. It wasn’t how it came across in your original comment, but we can all give the wrong impression when we’re angry. Still better angry than lying.

I’m still a bit concerned that you consider joining Labour at Oxford, but not locally. After all, nobody agrees with every policy and action of the Party they belong to and experience of the grassroots of party life will hopefully remind you that politics is more than making clever debating points.

As the above post and most of the comments (some unconsciously) suggest one great danger in British public life is its control by a self-identifying elite. I hope you have the sense to resist its temptations and continue to realise that the reality of life is outside its narrow bounds

“……. or am I just thinking like a chippy provincial grammar school boy who didn’t make the cut?”

well, the evidence of most of your writing seems to suggest that the answer is “yes.”

“Yet survey after survey has shown …..”

which is why you’ve cited a total of one. I’m not disputing the point, just drawing attention to your poor methodology. Possibly an indication of why you didn’t make it into Oxford or Cambridge.

“But unless anyone has got any better ideas, Oxbridge should be forced to apply it on a massive scale, just so the other 99% of us occasionally get a look in.”

Well, the whole point of places like Oxford and Cambridge is that 99% of the population shouldn’t “get a look in.” They are for the 1% who have the intellect to benefit from them.

Oh and also @Stephen Wan:

You might wanna put a spellchecker through your website: “Becasue thinking is overrated…” ? For an Oxford boy that just won’t do!

@26: “Is there any way the party can be opened back up again to a broader spectrum of people?”

The Party could always allow local constituencies to select their own Parliamentary candidates instead of parachuting strictly approved candidates in from London or dictating criteria for local shortlists.

Of course, the issue then becomes one of whether that recipe could work to get enough candidates elected to constitute a majority in the House of Commons after the current coalition government has pushed through the reduction in the number of MPs, the resulting enlargement of Parliamentary constituencies and the reform of the voting system.

The conventional wisdom is that the Labour Party will not be able to get enough Parliamentary candidates elected on the basis of support from the declining number of “working class” votes alone. The fact is that the number of manual jobs is in long term decline across the affluent economies.

@Mr S. Pill,

Well observed, I can’t believe I didn’t notice that! Thank goodness I didn’t have to do a spelling test! Ah, well, my line of thinking goes something like this: Study hard, work out the best way to help the least well off, then go do it (or try!)

@Roger Mexico,

Yes, I think I came across a little worse than I meant to. Which is typical of me, becoming more passionate than sensible, and more often than not jumping to conclusions. As for joining locally, I did consider it, but the problem is, my family’s found it difficult to settle down (break-ups, debt etc.), and so we’ve moved around a lot. I did use to be part of the Independent Community Group, but then I moved, and a whole lot of other stuff happened which I’d rather not go into.

I hope I have the sense to realise that as well, but I’m sure most politicians say the same before they get their soul sucked out by that transcendent force that is POWER. Still, I think the greatest things that have been accomplished have been to benefit society.

The best thing would be to turn them into Colleges for adult education and lifetime learning as well as graduate centres, especially in the sciences where they are excellent, and stop them being student universities.

@62

I’ll keep my beady eye on your page for any other slips ;) Your heart seems in the right place, I hope it stays there! Good luck with the studies.

@59: “Well, the whole point of places like Oxford and Cambridge is that 99% of the population shouldn’t ‘get a look in.’ They are for the 1% who have the intellect to benefit from them.”

Tony Blair is an Oxford graduate in law. Compare this from the Guardian:

“Honderich is also a consequentialist, which partly explains his hatred towards Tony Blair. ‘He is always asking to be judged by the morality of his intentions,’ he spits. ‘He doesn’t understand that no one cares about his fucking morality. We judge him by the consequences of his actions. In any case, his morality is so muddy and ill-considered. I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that Blair’s main problem is that he’s not very bright.'”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2005/mar/22/academicexperts.highereducationprofile

Until he retired, Ted Honderich was Grote professor of philosophy at UCL.

“The first sound of bats flapping in [Blair's] belfry was heard even before the election, in December 1996, when he told Des O’Connor that as a 14-year-old he had run away to Newcastle airport and boarded a plane for the Bahamas: ‘I snuck onto the plane, and we were literally about to take off when the stewardess came up to me…’ Quite how he managed this without a boarding card or passport was not explained. It certainly came as a surprise to his father (‘The Bahamas? Who said that? Tony? Never’), and an even greater surprise to staff at the airport, who pointed out that there has never been a flight from Newcastle to the Bahamas.

“A couple of years later, he told an interviewer that his ‘teenage hero’ was the footballer Jackie Milburn, whom he would watch from the seats behind the goal at St James’s Park. In fact, Milburn played his last game for Newcastle United when Blair was just four years old, and there were no seats behind the goal at the time.”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,230340,00.html

66. Nick Cohen is a tory

When it came to studying maths, medicine , engineering or science at top universities pupils needed A and b grades in A levels in a choice of maths, further maths , physics, chemistry and biology, often with an S Level as well. Teachers with B.Eds or a general science degree ( say Chemistry and Biology ) from an ex-poly are often not able to teach to high enough standards for the top universities. This is made worse if the teacher has a degree in say chemistry and has to teach physics for entry to say Cambridge or Imperial.
That is not true, and there is no evidence that A level teachers cannot teach to those higher levels, OFSTED reports do not show any difference in subject knowledge. The results from teachers with Oxbridge degrees do not vary from those with degrees from any other universitity or polys.
Also most teachers don’t teach A level
Also you will find that the teachers from top universities follow the teaching practice of their lecturers, notes on the board and monotone voices
In addition, if the teachers have been to the top universities it make them easier to instill confidence in the pupils to apply
What evidence do you have for that, good teachers install confidence from whatever backgound

Full disclosure – I went to private school, was rejected by Oxford and went to Bristol. I spent 6 years teaching at Cambridge and now work at a new university. So I found the article and comments very interesting!

A double first – i.e. getting a first in both parts of the Cambridge Tripos – is very impressive. Part I takes two years in most subjects, Part 2 just one, and Part I has its own exam board – marking those papers is taken just as seriously as marking the Part 2 papers.

Someone was asking whether the teaching was so much better at Oxbridge. I think the real key, at Cambridge, is the highly personal system of college organised teaching. Your Director of Studies will have personal oversight of everything you do. If you miss a supervision your college will probably still be charged for it and so it’s a big deal. If you’re at a more conventional university it’s much easier to skip a class. I think the Cambridge system is wonderful for ambitious, independent learners as they can follow personal enthusiasms. If they do an interesting essay about a particular topic then their tutor may be able to recommend a follow up essay about something related, but more obscure, tailor made for that student. That just can’t happen if there are 10 people in a seminar group following a set course – although that can of course be an excellent experience too.

The question about fairness and admissions is really tricky and it’s one which has troubled me. I think Oxbridge does a lot, with outreach officers etc, but if a student isn’t already prepared to a pretty high level as soon as they arrive they’ll probably flounder and get demoralised. If you’ve been to an excellent school and really made the most of your opportunities – if you’ve read very widely – then you’ll have an advantage over someone who hasn’t had those opportunities and three years won’t be enough to balance that out. But it’s certainly important to try to distinguish, at interview, between students who have simply been very well prepared, and those who are less slick but perhaps have more raw talent. I’ve sometimes been aware – though I wasn’t personally involved in those interviews and it was quite a long time ago – of tasks being set at interview which might have seemed quite intimidating to some students. You can set a task – a close reading exercise for example – which is accessible and yet which still allows students to reveal their ability.

Paul @32 has beaten me to it.

Oxford and Cambridge admit the same proportion of state pupils as apply.

The problem, if there is one, is not with the admissions policy.
It is with the disproportionate lack of state school candidates.

The case against Oxford PPE graduates:

Nick Cohen: Hertford College, Oxford, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

’nuff said.

As for academic selection & grammar schools advancinng educational opportunites for working class kids.

When he had the 11+ only 25% of children got into grammar schools.

I fought (literally) my way through a secondary modern education in the teeth of selective education in the north in the ’60s, I can only say bloody good riddance to grammar schools.

The grammar school system wrote off the vast majority of kids at 11. I didn’t discover I had any academic intelligence till I was 30, by which time it was too late to build a career of any sort.

Secondary modern kids were just fodder for low paid manual, or clerical labour, the girls could aspire to be typists before becoming housewives. University education wasn’t even considered for a second.

That other shibboleth of the right ‘Trendy ’60s teaching methods’ eh? Do you know many kids from secondary moderns, which educated the vast majority of children in England and Wales, went to university in 1963? ONE

The fact is, comprehensive education came into being not because of some socialist attack on inequality (though this played a part) but mainly because the majority of middle class kids were not getting into grammar schools and their parents were making a helluva stink about it.

And we still have academic selection but it’s done by stealth nowadays. Faith schools is one method of it.

70. John T. Capp

It’s incredible how when you post an article critical of educational elites, all these Oxbridge grads all like flies round shit trying to defend their massive sense of entitlement. No wonder everyone hates you; we’re not even allowed to hate you without being shot down with eloquent, well-constructed and logical arguments. Twats.

Stephen Wan, I would never vote for you for Labour leader, not because you want to study PPE at Oxbridge, but because you come across as a pompous and obnoxious arse. Sincere apologies for people criticising your choice of degree, I’m sure it will hold you back immeasurably on your path to a top-class education, a mighty fine job at the end of it and, if you play your cards right, a nice safe seat. I repeat – twats.

71. Charlie 2

66. nick cohen is a tory. My experience at a comprehensive which was a former secondary modern and in my career. As Sara Ab has said the pupil for Oxbridge ( Imperial , UCL and LSE) need to be prepared well.Many of the teachers I have mentioned do not have the ability to prepare the pupil adequately or they have to be exceptionally bright, highly motivated and /or find support from outside of the school. Look at the web sites of the most academic schools and see which universities the teachers have atteneded. If a teacher has attended a top university they often keep in contact and can arrange day trips for the pupils to the institution and they also know what is required to prepare pupils for entry.Many public /grammar schools have an Oxbridge/IC/medical school stream and prepare pupils from the beginning of the A Levels. The reason why the exams for Oxbridge were dropped was mainly because comprehensives lack the ability to prepare pupils for the exams. “The History Boys” is about a grammar school preparing pupils for Oxbridge, very few comprehensives had Oxbridge streams.

Oh dear – what inaccurate nonsense.

“In the majority they are public schoolies, although that is not universally the case. A handful genuinely are from ordinary backgrounds.”

If you read the article that you yourself linked to http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=2437655 you would see “…at Cambridge, 57.9 per cent of students are from state schools. At Oxford, that figure is 53.7 per cent”. Is that a handful?

Yes, I was at Cambridge myself – does that make me biased? But I was educated at an ordinary comprehensive in the 1970s, and I didn’t find Cambridge elitist or biased.

Later, as a teacher trying to help bright 6th formers get into Oxbridge, I found the biggest difficulty wasn’t the universities’ bias, but persuading the 6th formers to apply in the first place. Their *perception* was that Oxbridge was elitist, snobbish and so ‘not for them’ – an inaccurate perception based largely on a distorted press/media image (exacerbated by articles such as this).

The reality is, Oxbridge is desperate to admit a higher % of state school-educated pupils, but colleges can’t admit students who don’t apply!

Thanks to Dave for a thoughtful post, also to Paul S for his response over at Bad Conscience, and to the various commentators here. Like Sarah AB, I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

One thing that is probably worth paying a bit more attention to is the way in which undergraduate admissions work is mostly done by the individual Colleges, not by the central Universities, that how they play their cards depends on the cards they are dealt, and that there’s quite a bit of non-random variation here.

I’ve done admissions work at three Oxbridge Colleges over the last decade (Magdalen and Balliol in Oxford for PPE, King’s in Cambridge for PPS), and each of these Colleges gets a strikingly different applicant pool: at Magdalen, there were lots of expensively educated people, and among those from state schools there were only a few from non-selective institutions; at Balliol, the applicants came from a much greater variety of educational (and geographical) backgrounds, but the great majority were from men; and at King’s, they are overwhelmingly from non-selective state schools, and most of them are from women. And, lo and behold, if this is what your applicants look like, this is also what your incoming first-year class looks like the following October.

And I think the issue here is one of a kind of path-dependency. The admissions processes at all three places might be scrupulously fair to all candidates, and yet each PPE or PPS cohort will look pretty much like the previous one. Potential applicants will get signals in one way about what the typical student at these Colleges is like, whether because they look at statistical tables in the prospectus, because they pick up a vibe if they visit on an Open Day, or (more likely, I suspect) because they trawl websites for information about College reputations and stereotypes and the like. And if people pick up these cues, so that able expensively educated people apply to Magdalen, able men are more likely to apply to Balliol, and able students from non-selective state schools continue to apply to King’s, then the dynamic is self-reinforcing over time, and existing patterns persist of applications persist into the future.

And these things are hard to change, if you want them to change (I myself don’t want the pattern of applications at King’s to change), then short of officially-sanctioned positive discrimination (currently illegal) or the wholesale centralisation of admissions procedures (which I’d generally favour, certainly in the case of Oxford, which I know more about, but which only a tiny minority of my colleagues ever did). The hard work of people involved in outreach efforts — Target Schools, admissions tutors, etc. — is all very valuable, but it only ever seems to have a fairly minor effect on the overall picture — and the same is true with regard to the various mechanisms for redistributing candidates across Colleges after they’ve applied to one of them.

74. Flowerpower

Since he’s alluded to it himself @ 34 above, I’m hoping Paul won’t mind if I frame the point more sharply:
How come the Paul Sagar who is doing postgrad work on political theory at London Unversity is a LibCon comrade who you’d have a beer with, while the Paul Sagar of only a short time ago: the one reading PPE at Oxford, was an elitist bastard?

OK, a reality check here. Universities are not just an arm of the government. They are part of a global market in research and teaching, and indeed international students are a key part of the funding of universities. But they are also in competition for the best students at all levels, and in competition to attract funding and to recruit the best staff. A good university is elitist, because it is about being the best (how you measure the best is a different question). If the education system is not producing the best, why cripple the universities by forcing them to take them? Because if you do, they are no longer competing well against the rest of the world, as staff move to other universities, funding follows and therefore reputation suffers, and then international recruitment starts to fall, with the resultant loss of funding that has to be either made up by government (who have no money) or by lowering standards further.

It is all very well to be noble and egalitarian about entry to the best universities, but as is normal with this sort of ill thought-out approach, where it appears the right of student access is more important than the function of the institution, the damage it would do would ultimately make the question bunk. After all, can you really tell me that the abolition of grammar schools improved social mobility in areas where the grammar schools were no monopolised by the middle class?

Chris – my experience of students at King’s fits in with your own observations – it has a reputation for being egalitarian and leftist and that seems to have an effect on the students it attracts. I think some other colleges probably try just as hard to admit students from less advantaged backgrounds, but don’t have enough well qualified applicants. I’m not sure about centralising admissions. You’d still have a group of fallible people doing the interviews and you couldn’t possibly have all applicants being interviewed by the same people – or even having their applications looked at by the same people – so you couldn’t ensure that the end result was any fairer or more consistent. My experience – which only applies to one subject of course – was that the pool operated very well. My sense was that everyone worked hard to make sure that they got the best students for their college – in so far as one can establish who is ‘best’ – and worked equally hard on behalf of students who had just missed a place at their college. The top five rejects from X college might therefore all get places in the end wheres Y college might only take on 3 people who had initially applied for it, and get 7 from the best colleges’ rejected applicants.

Chris – my experience of students at King’s fits in with your own observations – it has a reputation for being egalitarian and leftist and that seems to have an effect on the students it attracts.

To some extent, perhaps. But Balliol also has a reputation for being a leftwing College (the Daily Telegraph had an editorial on this just the other day) and in some ways it’s more egalitarian than other Colleges (the students have been traditionally hostile to black-tie balls and formal dinners, for example – though this tendency has been in sharp decline in recent years, I’m sorry to say), but it also has a reputation for being very academically competitive, and this does seem to put off applicants who don’t think of themselves as wanting to be in an academically very competitive environment.

I think this is the path-dependency effect is at work. In Cambridge, King’s was the first College aggressively to go after state-school applicants, and even though it doesn’t seem to make a huge effort on that front now, it doesn’t have to: the pattern of applications that was established thirty or forty years ago persists. (In Oxford, St John’s College was the College that similarly became the magnet for state-school applicants — and it doesn’t have an egalitarian or left-wing ethos at all, insofar as I’ve ever been able to tell).

I mean no offense personally to Stephen Wan at51, but if a PPE degree and politics is the best way to help people then we’re fucked.

I went to a private school in Bristol, and I didn’t get fantastic A-levels. I only went there because I would have had the shit beat out of me at the local comp.

Strange thing about it in hindsight is that it didn’t really focus much on Oxbridge. We were told about when the applications were due, and the benefits explained to those who were curious, but I didn’t have a clue what Oxbridge was really about until I was about 22 and realised that graduates I met from those colleges had gotten a fundamentally different grounding in their subjects than I had at Exeter.

The ones from my school who went to Oxbridge were the ones whose parents had done. My Dad, on the other hand, had worked throughout his career with many Oxbridge alumni and surpassed them all simply through sheer innate discipline, so he wasn’t convinced Oxbridge could teach me anything worthwhile. My mother could only wave her hands and tell me about various boring people who went there and got rich (Being 17 years old, I wasn’t about to risk becoming boring for any amount of future wealth).

The way to democratise Oxbridge would simply be to induce them somehow to be visible and prominent at every state school in some form – to daily instill the message that going there is more likely to bring you happiness and riches than playing football or being pretty. Do this from the youngest age possible, and keep doing it until the child is old enough to reason that even if he can’t get into Oxbridge, he knows what he’s good at and can explore that instead.

80. deborah harman

We appear to be missing an elephant, here.

2 in fact.

There are 2 main problems with ‘democratising’ Oxbridge entry:

1) The death of grants, and all that followed.
Let’s compare with 1988, say…
What proportion of entrants have family homes within 50 miles of their university?
Maybe the poor of Cambridge can reasonably apply to Cambridge in the comfort of knowing that Mum can help… put them up and feed them, but ‘the poor of Cambridge’ isn’t a massive selection pool.
Most students are faced with going to the souped-up Poly down the road, or stuff all.

2) For technical subjects, there is LESS EDUCATION going on in the state sector.
In short, we can call it ‘artificially prepared for interview’, and we can call it ‘hothoused for entrance papers’ etc, but this is a deceptive spin on the main point.
The main point is that those kids leave school KNOWING MORE, having been TAUGHT MORE. Is it the job of universities to ‘take a punt on potential’ in the absence of hard evidence?
We may agree that it is, but it’s the devils job to say to what extent.

Over the years, there’s been talk of S-level entrance requirements just to discern calibre – which A-levels inconclusively do. But we’re back to the old problem that Indies would resource this, whereas a Comp wouldn’t.

It seems a ludicrous oversimplification to lay the blame at the door of institutions who are probably attempting to choose on merit far more than we give them credit for.

The state system is simply not inclined to invest in achievers. We tend towards the view that low achievers deserve the resource – in some patronising and incorrect analogy with healthcare – as though these are the sick ones to be mended. A rational view might say “education ain’t their bag and that’s cool”. Let’s face it, go-getter tradespeople earn more in my town than graduates. I don’t know anywhere where that isn’t true.
I don’t see many SEN teachers on hand for the gifted. This is not the resourcing culture at play in an Indie.

The root of the problem lies in who arrives for interview in the first place, and what they are evidently capable of doing – in the room, on the day.

Nevertheless, class war forever!

Deb

81. Nick Cohen is a Tory

“Many of the teachers I have mentioned do not have the ability to prepare the pupil adequately or they have to be exceptionally bright, highly motivated and /or find support from outside of the school.”
How do you know , this is just pub talk
Where is your evidence that they cannot teach these students. All schools have G and T programmes that introduce and enrich students.
You cannot make a judgement on whether a teacher is good or bad unless you see them in the classroom.

” Look at the web sites of the most academic schools and see which universities the teachers have atteneded. If a teacher has attended a top university they often keep in contact and can arrange day trips for the pupils to the institution and they also know what is required to prepare pupils for entry.”
Those students in those school may be achieving for a number of reasons.
Mainly their own ability, most could achieve if they put a monkey in suit in front of them. Most are also tutored on a one to one.
Most of my teachers technique at my ex grammar school and university consisted on a bore with a monotone voice, who didn’t want to be there writng notes on a board and then asking us to revise notes.
The best teachers I had was one at UMIST who was brilliant. Who every time you went into that room you were enriched and inspired. Where he was educate I do not know.
The other was a poly trained PE teacher.
The real skilled teacher is the one who can make a C into A in a tough comp.
Where is your evidence and are you saying that no teacher can organise a trip to cambridge 0or oxford. They have to an ex alumini to do that. So if we organise a trip to science museum the teacher must have been an ex employer.

Many public /grammar schools have an Oxbridge/IC/medical school stream and prepare pupils from the beginning of the A Levels. The reason why the exams for Oxbridge were dropped was mainly because comprehensives lack the ability to prepare pupils for the exams. “The History Boys” is about a grammar school preparing pupils for Oxbridge, very few comprehensives had Oxbridge streams.
I doubt it was dropped because of lack of abiity to reach but cost cutting.
Also why should a school solely have a stream for any university.

The problem is that we get hung up on Oxbridge.
You want to go, great, it doesn’t make you a better person.
Personally I would privatise Oxbridge, then most of the students will be fee paying Arabs or the offspring from Russian Oligarchs.
You will make a profit.
You Tories should support it
The if you want to eat swan then at least the state isn’t subsidising it.

Also I cannot think of one ex alumini from oxbridge who isn’t
1. Working in broadcasting.
2. Journalists, ah. Writing crusty articles about how teaching assistants should be sacked.
3. Working in the clossetted world of academia.
4. Money grabbing lawyers.

Although I must say I do love ex oxbridge Comedians such as Fry and the Pythons

Some inconvenient facts for Dave Osler:

1) Oxbridge welcomes working class applicants as much than any other kind.
In fact Camb/Oxf are falling over themselves to get the most talented
students from any walk of life (for one thing because the constituent
colleges, who control the admissions, each desparately want to do better in
the University league tables, Tompkins/Norrington of final exam results).

2) “In the majority they are public schoolies… handful from ordinary
backgrounds”. Wrong. Cambridge admissions 2008-9: 48% from state schools,
38% from independent schools, 14% from overseas. (See
http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/reporter/2009-10/special/15/ for figures)

3) “survey after survey has shown that entry procedures are stacked in
favour of a small minority of elite fee-paying schools…”. Wrong. These
surveys just show that Oxbridge takes a lot of students from those schools.
Of course they do – it’s because those schools have a disproportionate
number of talented students! That is why Oxbridge takes them. That’s all
they want: talented students. The admissions process itself is not biased
towards these “elite” schools.

4) “The entire mechanism designedly perpetuates class divisions…”. Wrong.
Dave Osler and his fellow travellers are the ones perpetuating the class
divisions and 50 year-old stereotypes of Oxbridge. They are part of the
problem. They are the ones putting off talented people from poorer
backgrounds from applying by making them think that they wouldn’t fit in, or
that they would be a class traitor for applying. They are the ones who cause
admissions tutors in Oxbridge colleges to tear their hair out in frustration
when these stereotypes get wheeled out again by some high-profile person who
engages in a bit of Oxbridge-bashing to look good, and undoes all the hard
outreach work that the University does to try to get more people to apply.

What John B said.

I have to add, though, that fees have had a pernicious effect. When I was at Oxford in the Nineties, the rahs were very much a minority; now virtually every student I meet or overhear has a cut-glass accent. What’s changed? Money. The disappearance of the maintenance grant, plus tuition fees, have changed the demographics. The claim that Target Schools etc. have failed to encourage students from poorer backgrounds to apply misses the fact that it’s taken all the work they can do just to KEEP the state school percentage in the fifties (which is not, for the mathematically challenged among you, a handful, though the figure obviously should be higher). It’s amazing it hasn’t plunged; and I strongly suspect that a much higher proportion of those state school pupils who do apply come from wealthy backgrounds than was the case before fees.

Want to democratise Oxbridge? Start by abolishing fees and restoring state funding to the circa 1980 level, inflation-adjusted. Restore the maintenance grant. And then you can stop lying to state pupils about Oxbridge admissions, and tell them the truth: they CAN get in, and should apply.

Diversifying the political class, however, is an entirely separate issue, and shouldn’t be lumped together with democratising the universities. It will require much greater levels of internal democracy on the part of all the major parties. If you’re a member of any of them, stop whining and start campaigning for this.

I have taught in minor public schools, most with quite non-academic intakes. I have had 11 potential Oxbridge candidates in my subject. They were all coached by me at their (not their parents’) request. They were all accepted. As a percentage, this is much better than the schools at the top of your list. The coaching does not start in the Sixth Form. It starts with giving every child self-belief a long time before that, and it needs almost all staff (including non-academic) to contribute to this.
From this I conclude that Oxbridge has no bias towards any particular school. They simply consider whether the student will benefit from their hardworking, fast paced, stretching teaching style, which requires both brilliance and self belief. This is what the tutors at Oxbridge I have met have told me, and it appears from my experience to be true.
I would also point out that for many courses, e.g. specialist engineering courses, Oxbridge is not the best destination, or even the hardest to get in to. Have a look at the application/acceptance ratio for Mech Eng at Bristol for example (11:1 last I heard).
Of course, it is debatable whether a non-Oxbridge calibre teacher is capable of preparing a student for Oxbridge; or that should they have a sack of potatoes on each shoulder, then it means they refuse to help the students. Anecdotally, and from the miniscule sample size of my experience, I suspect these factors have a lot more to do with it than which school the student went to.

Simply because I’m lazy, here’s a repost of what I’ve written on another blog replying to this article. Incidentally the ‘survey’ you post is a case in point – it misses the distinction between overall population vs admissions figures and applications vs admissions figures discussed below without attention to which it’s worthless. Furthermore by assuming that the admissions process is at fault they impune the integrity and objectivity of academics they have never met (and in the case of one of the fellows who interviewed me, whose integrity and judgment I would put a lot more stock in than my own).

—————

As someone who went to a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ (or in Rees-Mogg terminology, someone who is a ‘potted plant’) and nevertheless passed relatively painlessly through the Cambridge admissions process I’m always a little non-plussed about discussions related to how the process is violently discriminatory against people like me. I didn’t find that to be the case. If it’s true that there is a level of intake from fee-paying schools which is disproportionate to the population at large then it would seem that this would most probably be a consequence of one or more of the following; (a) private schools offering superior education, or at any rate education more geared towards developing the kind of skills which are looked for in the interview process, (b) the interview process is unfairly geared towards those from private schools either as the result of conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the interviewers or because they test for some things which are not relevant to academic work and which private school students will be advantaged compared to state schoolers and (c) there is a bias against state school and towards private schoolers already established in the applications.

I have nothing but sympathy for Cambridge regarding (c); they try really hard and put a lot of money into the effort to encourage applications from ‘folk like me’ as do CUSU and yet attempts to criticise the University for it’s student demographics almost never bother to correct for the fact the comparison class for evaluating how fair the admissions process is is a matter of comparing the acceptance rate to the application rate against school background not comparing acceptance to the population at large – Cambridge can’t force people to apply. One thing I think Cambridge should do but I don’t think it has yet is being more explicit in the statistics it publishes. The figures which tend to get publicised (e.g. on the admissions page) are those which are based on the distinction between ‘independent’ and ‘maintained’ schools; a totally spurious distinction as it counts me in the same category as people who went to schools where they had to pay thousands of pounds per year provided that school still received some state subsidy. To get the real figures you have to look at the special issue of the reporter on admissions statistics and even then it only tells you the breakdown by school type for the colleges (against gender IIRC) and not, for example, per subject. The situation will not improve more speedily the more Cambridge tries to pretend there’s less of a problem.

I’m not very convinced (b) is a problem. If it is a problem then it’s a problem which is in the interests of those conducting the interview to correct. Even if conspiracy theorists might say it’s in the interests of the university to let in students from more privileged backgrounds (which it might well be) my interviews were conducted by the then-Dean, the current DoS (from another college) and the previous DoS for my subject at my college; it wasn’t in their interests to consciously prioritise irrelevant traits, and even if there might be some subconscious bias on the basis of things such as accent and diction more and more colleges are bringing in additional checks. In my final year the the history fellows were beginning to trial a written test similar to that used in the interviews for my own subject, and were testing the degree to which decisions made on the basis of the tests correlated with the decisions based on the interviews etc after they had been made.

In so far as (a) is an issue I guess there’s a leveling down problem. The answer is not to abolish private schools (though their charitable status does grate slightly) but rather to spend more on and improve the state school system. There seems to be a lack of willingness in at least some state schools to actively encourage the better students to pursue their education independently of the curriculum. I don’t kid myself that had I not taken the bulk of my penultimate year off school due to glandular fever and not spent the majority of my time not spent working, reading in my gap year during which I applied it is doubtful I’d have developed into the kind of person they decided it was worth taking a chance on. And frankly, if there’s a plausible case to be made that at least some of the more able pupils develop better outside of school than in it that would seem to me a considerable indictment of the status quo.

Just my two cents.

(In the interests of full disclosure the only comparative performance figures I could find readily at hand were that my high school came joint 219th in Scotland in terms of the percentage of students passing 3 Scottish Highers (AS-levels… sort of) for the year after I graduated)

For the record; a double-first is very impressive. A double-starred first is inhuman; anyone who gets them is probably one of those secret lizards David Icke keeps on talking about; best to avoid them. A triple-first is a purely mythological beast; people who claim to have them don’t understand the nomenclature: the ‘double’ refers to the parts of the tripos and as such the only way you could get a triple first would be if you took a subject with a part III which graded the part III according to the standard system rather than fail/pass/distinction. There might have been some subjects which did this but I’m fairly sure there aren’t any anymore. (I was told part III Law was done by class, but recently informed this isn’t the case). Neal Ascherson sometimes is stated as having one; this is impossible. It’s caused by people thinking if you get a first all three years it’s a ‘triple first’.

“I grant that the typical product of Oxbridge is extremely bright. There’s little doubt about that. Even the ones that come out with a third, after spending three years thrashing restaurants when not punting up and down the Cherwell, strike me as clever, at least in the sense of not actually dumb.”

There’s a wonderful remark of Feynman’s in the supplementary volume on the lectures on physics in which he says something to the effect of “a curious thing happens at CALTECH; they take in the best maths and physics students from all over the country, and most of these kids have been the top students or near enough at their high schools and are used to being top at everything. And then they come to CALTECH and, would you believe it, full have of them discover they are below average? And a lot of them get very down about this, because they aren’t used to ‘failure’. And they start wondering what the point of the whole thing was – they used to be the tops and now they’re maybe in the bottom 10% of the class. And then they leave CALTECH, and they discover that, in fact, they haven’t suddenly gotten a lot dumber. In fact, when talking to other people in their subject they usually find they’ve gotten a lot smarter than they were when they went in. Almost as if they learned something. Fancy that!”

88. Mark Kober-Smith

The assumption remains, whoever gets in, that Oxford and Cambridge Students are somehow a cut above the rest. Instead of assumptions, I prefer science. Set students from different universities the same exam, and test the results. This has almost never been done. Yet I met a lecturer at Birmingham Polytechnic, who had taught at both Oxford and Cambridge and was now at Birmingham, who had a course jointly taken by Cambridge and Birmingham Polytechnic students, the latter doing equally well on average with their underfunded library, and fewer resources, as the Cambridge ones.

I am not saying that Oxbridge are worse, simply that if you give double the resources and give more individual tuition it would be highly surprising if you did not get better results. Of course, if the Oxbridge students are so bright they would succeed anyway, perhaps some of their funding could safely be cut….

As it is, I find that many Oxbridge students, historically at least (since most students need to work harder now) rest overly on their supposed laurels. They assume that they have done enough just by getting their BA, which, let’s face it, does not usually teach you a great deal.

I suggest that entrance is more dependent on the income of your parents in paying school fees or getting into a good catchment area than on the brilliance of your mind. Additionally, the halo effect of having been to Oxbridge is often more important than what you are saying or doing today. It was the last lot of Oxbridge ministers that got us into wars that most people who had not been to any university could see were unwinnable.

Let’s do a bit of testing, not just sticking with the same old assumptions.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    How to democratise Oxbridge http://bit.ly/bHolgX

  2. John Band

    I think he misspelt "demonise" RT @libcon How to democratise Oxbridge http://bit.ly/bHolgX

  3. Alda Telles

    Want to be a Prime Minister? Just take a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford http://bit.ly/aVoxjY

  4. Elizabeth Eva Leach

    @libcon Felt compelled to reply to @libcon article on democratization of Oxbridge. See http://tinyurl.com/36has9v.

  5. Tweets that mention » How to democratise Oxbridge | Liberal Conspiracy -- Topsy.com

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberal Conspiracy, John Band. John Band said: I think he misspelt "demonise" RT @libcon How to democratise Oxbridge http://bit.ly/bHolgX [...]

  6. The Truth About Oxbridge Admissions: A Reply To Dave Osler « Bad Conscience

    [...] in Higher Education, Politics at 7:30 pm by Paul Sagar Dave Osler just wrote a piece attacking the “Oxbridge Mafia”. I thought I’d take it upon myself to offer The Family’s [...]

  7. David Skelton

    RT @libcon: How to democratise Oxbridge http://bit.ly/bHolgX





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