New research has found that surnames originating with the Norman aristocracy are still over-represented at Oxford. By contrast, there are disproportionately few students with surnames associated with poverty in the 19th century.
The study, conducted by the London School of Economics, takes names from the wealthiest caste of society 1000 years ago – such as Darcy, Baskerville and Montgomery – and analyses their contemporary presence in society’s most prestigious professions and institutions. In medicine, law, politics and attendance of Oxbridge, they are found to outweigh those names originating amongst the nation’s poorest 150 years ago – names such as Boorman, Ledwell and Defoe.
Researchers Dr. Neil Cummins and Professor Gregory Clark believe this paints a bleak picture of social mobility in the UK. Speaking to the Daily Mail , Dr. Cummins said: “What is surprising is that between 1800 and 2011 there have been substantial institutional changes in England, but no gain in rates of social mobility for society as a whole.”
Only aristocratic names of the Norman period are included in the study, but nonetheless numerous commentators in national newspapers have sought to imply the systematic bias of Oxbridge admissions towards all social elites.
Grace Dent in The Independent, for instance, remarked: “We’d be forgiven for concluding that powerful names beget power regardless of what bubbles between a person’s ears”, blaming “the old boy’s network for distributing jobs and gaining university entry”.
The admissions procedure is still a topic of lively debate within the University and amongst the student body. Last Michaelmas, the Union debated the proposition ‘This House Believes that Oxford Admissions are Still Unfair’, which was defeated by 161 votes to 123. Later this term, the Union will host controversial media personality Katie Hopkins in debate with Pembroke undergraduate Tyrone Steele, over her comments that tutors should prefer a Cecil to a Tyrone in their tutor groups.
Steele defended Oxford admissions: “The idea that Oxford ‘favours’ people with posh names is nonsense. Having worked closely with Pembroke on access issues and seen how admissions works, it’s really much more sophisticated than that… What we’re actually observing is some of the inequalities from around school age being reflected in the student body.
“If your family is poorer, then chances are you will have a harder time at school and perhaps you’re put off by the idea of Oxbridge because of media stereotypes. It’s all very much self-perpetuating.”
Steele pointed to Pembroke’s ‘B-Six’ program in Hackney as an example of the many outreach programs run by colleges to address such imbalances: since the scheme began in 2008, admissions to Russell Group universities from the partnered schools have increased by 500%. “If you’re clever and demonstrate potential”, Steele concluded, “I’m certain the tutor couldn’t care less whether you were a Charlotte or a Chantelle.”
Julia Megone, ex-Access Rep at Queen’s, echoed these sentiments by calling Oxford’s “long application process…the most personal and detailed of any in the country”. She dismissed suggestions that an applicant’s name influences selection as “frankly ridiculous”.