Oxbridge is a symptom of the class divide, not a cause

This post was written by Owen on May 23, 2010
Posted Under: Education,Society

Despite the fact that most of the people who write on this blog are Cambridge grads, we have (rightly, in my view), kept posts about matters Oxbridge to a minimum so far. So with that in mind, I apologise in advance for this post – given that it follows Dave Osler’s post at LibCon on Thursday and Paul Sagar’s reply at Bad Conscience (with another response by Laurie Penny potentially still to come,), the left blogosphere is somewhat more Oxbridge-focused than it perhaps should be at the moment. However, unlike Dave Semple, I don’t think this is necessarily a tangential distraction from more important debates we need to be conducting. It actually has the potential to be a useful way into those wider discussions.

Image: Francisco Diez/flickr

There are two main issues Dave Osler raises in his original post, which he blurs together somewhat. First, a massively disproportionate fraction of those in positions of power (Osler talks about politics but the same could just as easily be said of the worlds of finance, law or the media) in our society are Oxbridge graduates. Second, those who get into Oxbridge are far more likely than average to be privately educated and from a wealthy background.

Both of these are undeniably true, but I don’t think either Osler or Sagar give an adequate account of the reasons behind or implications of these facts. The dominance by Oxbridge alumni of various elite professions is principally a reflection of the extent to which those professions are anti-meritocratic, dependent on networking and personal contacts rather than individual talent. Surely the lack of meritocracy in politics is more likely to be due to systemic flaws in the way career structures work in the political world than to the universities our politicians attended? (I don’t think Paul Sagar’s suggestion on this topic that Oxbridge graduates really are a cut above the rest holds much water – yes, we might work harder than at other universities, but I’m unconvinced that that in itself makes you more intelligent, open-minded or intellectually curious.)

It’s also worth pointing out at this point that there’s one assertion in Osler’s original post that’s both pretty dodgy and totally unsupported by the rest of his article; his claim that “a place at Oxford or Cambridge is itself a privilege, in so far as it is almost a guarantee of career success”. This seems to be based on his earlier point about Oxbridge dominance of the professions, but ‘most wealthy/powerful people in the UK are Oxbridge alumni’ doesn’t entail ‘most Oxbridge alumni are wealthy and/or powerful’, any more than ‘most trapeze artisits have thumbs’ entails ‘most people with thumbs are trapeze artists’. Going to a university with a good reputation will probably do a fair bit for your career prospects, yes (though it’s anything but a cast-iron guarantee – I’m laughably overqualified for my current job), but this is hardly unique to Oxbridge even within the UK, as Reuben pointed out some time ago.

It’s the issue of who gets into Oxbridge, however, that’s far more interesting and important – if Oxbridge’s intake was representative of society at large, the dominance by Oxbridge alumni of politics, the media, law and so on wouldn’t be so much of a problem (though it wouldn’t be wholly unproblematic, mainly because of the issue of the meritocratic deficit I talk about above). Sagar’s analysis of why Oxbridge’s intake isn’t representative in this way gets a lot right, but I think he overstates the effect of teachers and pupils at comprehensives being under-informed about the admissions process. Of course this is widespread, which is why Sagar came across it a lot when he volunteered to visit schools as an undergrad (I did the same and my experiences were similar). But it’s also about the only factor affecting the social makeup of the student body that Admissions Offices can have any influence over. That’s the reason why they devote so much time and attention to it, not because it’s the factor that has the biggest impact.

Sagar’s also right that one reason private schools get so many students into Oxbridge is because they have the resources to offer a better education. It seems hard to argue otherwise without resorting to a definition of intelligence that’s implausibly (and unpleasantly) genetically determinist. Where Sagar goes wrong, though, is his conclusion that the main problem is deficiencies in the state school sector which the Government hasn’t done enough to address. This seems to almost wilfully ignore the more likely culprit – the fact that we have an education system that lets wealthy parents buy an education for their children that massively raises the odds that those children will grow up to be wealthy as well, meaning that the rich will stay rich (and probably do all they can to make it easier for the rich to keep on getting richer when they get political power) and the poor will, with very few exceptions, stay poor. By the time people reach the age where they’re thinking about applying to university (or not), the class divide is already well-established. This is obviously not to say that all schools should be at the level of the weakest-performing comprehensives – of course there are any number of things in the state sector that could be improved – but the principle that being rich lets you buy success for your children irrespective of any natural talent that they have is what we should be concerned with.

The social makeup of the student bodies at Oxford and Cambridge (and most other traditionally prestigious universities) reflects the massive class divide and laughable lack of social mobility in the UK, but it doesn’t cause it. Our society is a long way from being socially just, and looking at who gets admitted to Oxford and Cambridge shows us that vividly. But blaming two universities for the entrenched class division in our society is nothing more than shooting the messenger.

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Reader Comments


Once again Owen brings great clarity and original thought to a matter. No wonder his name combines own and win.

Written By Reuben on May 23rd, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

As someone who went to a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ (or in Rees-Mogg terminology, someone who is a ‘potted plant’) and nevertheless passed relatively painlessly through the Cambridge admissions process I’m always a little non-plussed about discussions related to how the process is violently discriminatory against people like me. I didn’t find that to be the case. If it’s true that there is a level of intake from fee-paying schools which is disproportionate to the population at large then it would seem that this would most probably be a consequence of one or more of the following; (a) private schools offering superior education, or at any rate education more geared towards developing the kind of skills which are looked for in the interview process, (b) the interview process is unfairly geared towards those from private schools either as the result of conscious or unconscious bias on the part of the interviewers or because they test for some things which are not relevant to academic work and which private school students will be advantaged compared to state schoolers and (c) there is a bias against state school and towards private schoolers already established in the applications.

I have nothing but sympathy for Cambridge regarding (c); they try really hard and put a lot of money into the effort to encourage applications from ‘folk like me’ as do CUSU and yet attempts to criticise the University for it’s student demographics almost never bother to correct for the fact the comparison class for evaluating how fair the admissions process is is a matter of comparing the acceptance rate to the application rate against school background not comparing acceptance to the population at large – Cambridge can’t force people to apply. One thing I think Cambridge should do but I don’t think it has yet is being more explicit in the statistics it publishes. The figures which tend to get publicised (e.g. on the admissions page) are those which are based on the distinction between ‘independent’ and ‘maintained’ schools; a totally spurious distinction as it counts me in the same category as people who went to schools where they had to pay thousands of pounds per year provided that school still received some state subsidy. To get the real figures you have to look at the special issue of the reporter on admissions statistics and even then it only tells you the breakdown by school type for the colleges (against gender IIRC) and not, for example, per subject. The situation will not improve more speedily the more Cambridge tries to pretend there’s less of a problem.

I’m not very convinced (b) is a problem. If it is a problem then it’s a problem which is in the interests of those conducting the interview to correct. Even if conspiracy theorists might say it’s in the interests of the university to let in students from more privileged backgrounds (which it might well be) my interviews were conducted by the then-Dean, the current DoS (from another college) and the previous DoS for my subject at my college; it wasn’t in their interests to consciously prioritise irrelevant traits, and even if there might be some subconscious bias on the basis of things such as accent and diction more and more colleges are bringing in additional checks. In my final year the the history fellows were beginning to trial a written test similar to that used in the interviews for my own subject, and were testing the degree to which decisions made on the basis of the tests correlated with the decisions based on the interviews etc after they had been made.

In so far as (a) is an issue I guess there’s a leveling down problem. The answer is not to abolish private schools (though their charitable status does grate slightly) but rather to spend more on and improve the state school system. There seems to be a lack of willingness in at least some state schools to actively encourage the better students to pursue their education independently of the curriculum. I don’t kid myself that had I not taken the bulk of my penultimate year off school due to glandular fever and not spent the majority of my time not spent working, reading in my gap year during which I applied it is doubtful I’d have developed into the kind of person they decided it was worth taking a chance on. And frankly, if there’s a plausible case to be made that at least some of the more able pupils develop better outside of school than in it that would seem to me a considerable indictment of the status quo.

Just my two cents.

Written By Duncan on May 24th, 2010 @ 3:20 am

Agree that ‘Oxbridge is a symptom of the class divide, not a cause,’ indeed I commented to that effect on Osler’s original post. I don’t entirely agree with the reasoning that private schools have the resources to produce better students and that the only other explanation is unpleasant genetic determinism. Rather I think the most significant factor, by far, is a distinct one and that it’s important to recognise this.

Primarily, I would argue that the educational dominance of private school students is due to the effects of their class position specifically and the various benefits they glean from their upbringing, peer groups, likely life chances etc. Being born into a privileged family makes you more likely to excel in education, just as being born into deprivation hinders you. These factors, I suspect, are the main influence on educational outcomes, rather than sheer resources of schools. Some empirical studies suggest that 14% of difference in outcomes is due to actual school quality, with the remainder being due to extraneous factors in the background of the pupils. I would certainly say that this is borne out by the school where I’m working now, which as an academy is outlandishly over-resourced (most expensive new school nationally), but has around 5 exclusions per day as it struggles to get a decent percentage of students to get 5 passes at GCSE. To put it another way: educational inequality is a symptom of the class divide.

Written By David Moss on May 24th, 2010 @ 6:38 pm

I agree with David. There seems to be a common, implicit assumption that you can make class divides go away if you improve schools enough. While education can certainly improve things, factors outside the classroom have too much of an effect for that to be true. I’d like to see some figures of private school achievement compared to state schools that are adjusted for background – do children of well-off, well-educated parents really do that much worse on average when they attend ordinary comprehensives than when they attend expensive private schools? I’m not suggesting there would be no difference, but I’d guess it’d be smaller than some might think.

Written By Sean on May 25th, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

For precise figures, you can try the reference for my ’14% of outcomes caused by school quality, rest by extraneous factors’ stat Sean.

Another giveaway is that students from poorer backgrounds tend to do worse in higher-performing, predominantly affluent intake schools, than they do in more deprived schools (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/poorer-pupils-suffer-at-affluent-state-schools-1952983.html), though of course you’d expect that anyway. Another piece of evidence would be that observable within schools there’s often a discernible trend for the more privileged kids to do better, which suggests it’s just not school privilege. One contrary note is that managerial class black children tend to radically decline in performance as they go through school, which implies that schools certainly can have a (negative) impact, at least in that very charged circumstance.

Written By David Moss on May 25th, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

Sean and David: I agree with you. I didn’t intend to argue that the private school/state school divide was anything like the whole story, though I can see how it came across that way. Factors in wider society play a massive role too, and I can easily believe that they have much more of an impact than schools alone. But I think the wider point I was making – that Oxbridge reflects British social stratification rather than bringing it about – still holds, and I find the principle of buying success for your children at the expense of everyone else abhorrent (though equally I find it hard to condemn parents who do so – for each individual family it makes sense; it’s just that the effects of large numbers of people doing it are terrible).

Written By Owen on May 25th, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

1) I don’t believe that anyone thinks oxford or cambridge are single handedly responsible for class divides in britain. Isn’t proving otherwise a diversion or smokescreen from the issue that these are 2 very elitest institutions.

2) Why have you just assumed that oxford and cambridge are reflections of our society without doing any research to back up that theory. Off the bat you could have at least compared the makeup of oxford and cambridge with other top universities, and going further, other institutions.

Written By paddy on May 26th, 2010 @ 1:03 pm

Why have you just assumed that oxford and cambridge are reflections of our society without doing any research to back up that theory.

Because Cambridge has been handing out degrees to numpties for the last decade or so?

Written By Tommy on May 28th, 2010 @ 9:28 pm


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