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.
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.