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.

University of Cambridge