Debate: Oxford students aren’t representative enough to properly govern the country10th June 2010
Who would’ve thought Oxford students were so in touch with the outside world? It seems, according to our recent survey, that although a large number of Oxford students come from rather privileged backgrounds, they have at least some knowledge of life outside the Oxford bubble.
Perhaps the least expected result was that 89% of Oxford students surveyed have been to a council estate. We can speculate for hours on what drew so many black tie owning, Lidl shunning students to their local council estate, and we won’t be able to come up with a conclusive answer, but what matters is that they went.
Images of champagne socialists and Etonian community organisers aside, Oxford clearly has a set of engaged but privileged people who make an effort to see life outside of their own back yard.
This doesn’t change the fact, however, that though some students may pay passing visits to deprived areas or volunteer the odd afternoon on a charity project, they still live a very different life. Their life is one that shuns the discount aisles of Aldi for the organised delis of Waitrose, and one where black tie is more than a once in a lifetime dress code.
Whether such a person is suited to governing the country is up to you.
Proposition: David Thomas
The public need to take back control
The function of Parliament is to represent us. It’s not to govern us, to rule us, or to tell us how we should live our lives. That’s why people are elected from constituencies, by constituencies – they are the envoys of the population. Their job is not to always agree with popular opinion, but rather to make decisions with their constituents’ interests at heart, from their constituents’ perspectives. To do the job properly they need to know how the people who elected them feel, to understand the problems they face and to comprehend the effects their judgements will have on the people they serve.
It’s clear from our survey that Oxford students do have some conception of the rest of the world. They’ve not spent their lives entirely within a bubble of privilege, but have managed every now and then to stray from it into the world of council estates, below average income and the aisles of Lidl. So the question is whether these excursions really qualify them to represent the people for whom Lidl is a primary food-source, not an exploratory trip.
The answer, unfortunately, is no. The politician who has taken casual trips to a council estate while escorted by a police guard, or who encountered low income workers on a charity weekend, is not a politician who can effectively represent their interests. The earnest politician may do his best to pay visits to his constituents often, and to call as many focus groups as he can, but someone who has a schoolboy familiarity with black tie simply cannot comprehend the lives of people who live in constant fear of unemployment, and don’t know how they’ll keep the house if it strikes.
It is no different to a self-important gap year student who after a week’s trek through Tanzania believes he understands and can represent the ordinary citizen. The inevitable superiority and distance between him and the people past whom he travels is a worryingly accurate metaphor for the Oxbridge politician swiftly making his way through council estate tours of Britain.
Opposition: Alice Fletcher
Privilege doesn’t necessitate detachment
There are 117 Oxonians serving in parliament today including the current Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Is it a coincidence then that Oxford has a reputation for being an elitist educator of the rich and privileged whilst politicians are increasingly seen as greedy fat cats out of touch with reality? The question is, are Oxford students really representative enough to act on behalf of the country?
It may be true that approximately half of Oxford students were educated privately and that generally speaking we are more affluent than the national average – 46% of the students who participated in our survey owned black tie before they came to Oxford. However, we must not be deceived by stereotype. To be so, would be just as discriminatory as any elitism.
For one, Oxford does have an incredibly diverse intake and though poorer contingencies might not make up the majority, they are certainly represented. Secondly, just because a person comes from one particular background does not mean they cannot appreciate the problems of another. As our survey shows, though the majority of Oxford students might come from more privileged backgrounds, they are by no means detached from those less fortunate than themselves. 89% have visited a council estate while 86% know a family where the primary earner makes less than £20,000.
Besides, the notion of a wholly representative person is an illusion. There will never be one. Someone from an underprivileged background is in no better position to represent everyone in the country than the average Oxonian. To allow social background to influence our decisions about who runs our country is to lose sight of what is really important: electing the people who are the most competent, qualified and suited to the job. That so many of these are alumni of Oxford, a university that prides itself on attracting students of the highest calibre and giving the best of educations, is not in the least surprising.