The real Oxbridge delusion


If you happen to have found yourself navigating murky waters of Twitter today there’s a good chance you will have washed ashore upon an article from The Independent entitled ‘The real Oxbridge delusion: Deny it all you want, the red trousers and rich kids stereotype fits perfectly’. 

Crafted by ex-Oxonian and would-be journo high-roller Tom Mendelsohn (no, me neither) the piece reveals few surprises; trundling, for the most part, over fairly inane Bullingdon Club stereotypes and flagging up admissions statistics to come to the conclusion that Oxford is a “crèche for nascent masters of the universe with a lamentable effect on meritocracy in Britain.”

This is ground that has been covered many times before, painting a picture of the University much like that we all enjoyed so much in the recent BBC documentary Young Bright and on the Right. 

Of course, what the article points to can hardly be deemed an utter fiction. Despite the oft-quoted (and itself painfully low) figure that 57.5 per cent of Oxford’s undergraduates are state educated, of those only about 34.5 per cent attended comprehensives or sixth-form colleges (which educate around 90 per cent of the population), the other 18 per cent having benefited from grammar school educations.

Add to this the port-fueled antics of the white-tie wearers among us and you may well think that Mendelsohn might not be all that far off about Oxford.

Yet there is a genuine danger in this genre of facile red-trouser bashing, and not only that it creates a media discourse that reinforces stereotypes by deterring state school applicants who already make up only 29 per cent of candidates.

No, the real problem with articles such as The Independent’s is the manner in which the elitism of Oxbridge is taken as being symptomatic of nothing more than, as Mendelsohn puts it: “an interview process that vastly favours the slick confidence that comes from the expensive coaching and small, nourishing class sizes that a private education so effortlessly provides.”

In short, applicants from private schools have more chance of being successful because they’re better candidates. They may not be more intelligent, but they are better prepared, better educated and—in general—more confident in their own abilities.

The point I am trying to make here is that it isn’t Oxford that is elitist; it’s Britain itself. It is so very easy for an—incidentally privately educated—alumnus like Mr Mendelsohn to frame Oxford as a self-perpetuating Tory factory. The problem is, by doing so, we are forgetting that the problems lie not with an unfair admissions process but rather with an education system that requires young people to pay thousands of pounds a year to get a decent education. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is little in life that gives me more pleasure than to lampoon the dinner jacket wearing exploits of the public school boys of OCA, the Bullingdon Club or The Union. But let’s not allow these bogeymen in blue to anesthetise us to the simple fact that, in this country, our futures are sold to the highest bidder long before we fill out a UCAS form.


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