Don’t Reject Oxbridge


Don't attack Oxbridge - we are not the root of the problem.

The news that a girl ‘rejected’ Oxford did the rounds of the press last week. She was lauded by self-styled anti-establishment types and decried by most of Oxbridge. It went straight onto the Guardian’s built-for-purpose ‘Oxbridge and Elitism’ section (yes, it exists).

I am actually sympathetic to Elly Nowell’s avowed dislike of ‘traditions and rituals’. It doesn’t seem like the best reason to choose your university, but there’s no reason why she should go anywhere she doesn’t want to go.

But the thing that really annoys me is the view of Oxbridge as being exceptionally ‘snobby’.

Thumbs up for reinforcing stereotypes 

Now, it can’t be denied that Cambridge and Oxford both select primarily from a narrow socio-economic band. Leaving aside whose fault this is (although the best study suggests that it’s not Oxbridge’s), I could understand why someone not from a traditional Oxbridge background might feel put off. It is a real problem, and one that the outreach officer of every college in Oxford and Cambridge do a great job trying to reduce.

But the problem is misunderstood, and concealed by the press’s obsession with private-to-state ratios. Some of the most privileged people I know went to state school, some of the least, on a scholarship to private school.

The real scandal is in the small number of students (and applicants) who are not middle class. And this is best represented by a straight-forward measure of wealth – free school meals. Now, Oxbridge does score badly on this – but not significantly worse than many other universities.

Bristol, Exeter, Newcastle, Durham, Bath – the names never seem to crop up in conversations about elitism, yet their FSM numbers are very close to ours.

The problem is a big one, but it’s a social one not an Oxbridge one. The righteously angry get distracted by our nice chapels and silly gowns, and end up assuming that we’ve jumped on horses and ridden the plebs out of town.

This anachronistic view is not just a pain in the arse. It relieves the pressure on the other universities, and on society in general, to right significant wrongs.

So long as people like Elly Nowell continue to assume that inequality is a function of nice stonework, it will persist where they have failed to see it. Don’t fool yourself by moving to UCL: you can’t change inequality with sarcasm.

All evidence is taken from The Sutton Report, which makes fascinating reading for data nerds.

  • Point of Information

    She has written her own article now, in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/

  • Ilovememegenerator
  • The sad truth

    The problem isn't the application process, it's the fact that not nearly enough people are applying from less privileged backgrounds. This could be changed, but that change needs to come from the school itself. If (badly-informed) teachers tell less privileged pupils that they "wouldn't really fit in in Oxbridge" (which sadly happens far too often) then they will never apply.

    Brilliant article.

  • Logic…

    She gets intimidated by grand buildings…

    …So she applied to the only Oxford college with a deer park.

  • Stupidity

    What an attention seeking idiot. Yes, Oxbridge is dominate by middle/upper class people. Being here and coming from a working class background it's something that's painfully obvious and gets annoying sometimes. And yes, that imbalance is a shame. But it's not Oxbridge's fault at all if the working classes aren't equipped/choose not to apply. And if I go home and say to all the other intelligent working class people that I know: "Don't go to Oxbridge, you're from a lower socio-economic background so you won't fit in", how on earth is that going to help the situation improve?!

  • Stay away

    Nothing worse than inverted snobbery, UCL with its Benthamite foundation is hardly going to embrace that attitude.

  • Good Job

    Agreed, very good article. Joe, I am now a fan. Keep it up.

  • Nowell's House Party

    The best bit is that she didn't even get an offer, she 'rejected it' before she found out, probably because she did a crap interview

  • Impressed

    This is a brilliantly written article, well done! Managed to point out what's wrong with her letter without using words like 'petulant' and sounding like you're on an Oxbridge high horse, which I've not seen up until now!

  • Hamlet

    Why does anyone really care about this story, that's the question?

  • Trend-setter

    While I don't study at Cambrige, being a friend of Jo's I often pop over to read the Tab and for once I feel qualified to comment:

    I withdrew from my Cambridge application 2 years ago with an email that told them felt the course I was applying for was too archaic and abstract and I preferred to study on one that was more applicable to the real world. Some how I suppressed the urge to make a spectacle of myself…

    I now study at St Andrews which has managed to avoid the public stigma of being ridiculously posh even though:

    1) blooming Prince William studied here
    2) we have commemorative hunter wellies for sale for our 600th anniversary (seriously)
    3) we have a very high proportion of international students who pay ridiculously high fees and thus are rich out of necessity

    But alas Oxbridge garners its elitist image while we suffer being ignored except when Wills comes for a visit or some of us take up effigy burning. Truly this is a sad state of affairs…

    On a serious note I think the world needs to get a grip, Jo makes an excellent point: the middle-class majority at university is a social problem not the fault of individual unis. More crucially it affects all the "good" universities equally. Poor state education, difficult home environments, the assumption that without a good background it isn't worth applying must be accepted as the root causes. Perhaps then we can try and find solutions to all these things.

    • Concerned student

      What is wrong with you. Why are you posting something serious on the comments section of the Tab?

    • Ummm

      Why did you apply to Cambridge then if you didn't like the course? If you can't read a prospectus, you're probably not Cambridge material anyway…

  • typo

    "the the"

  • StateSchoolSatan

    ‘traditions and rituals’.

    CUSU made us all sacrifice a goat in order to gain entry to their shadowing scheme.

  • Guardian Reader

    As a working class girl from Winchester (source: Guardian) she's probably been intimidated by nice buildings all her life.

  • Truly Privileged

    "Some of the most privileged people I know went to state school"

    You clearly don't know very many very privileged people. Come spend an afternoon at Trinity and I promise this deplorable state of affairs will change. Also, seriously, if this is true, what college are you at? I've never been to one which doesn't have a good crop of proper £25000pa public school inhabitants.

    On another note, if you're going for the money-isn't-everything type of privilege, doesn't it kind of make you privileged to have the opportunity to take up a scholarship to a private school?

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