Political Promise

Stop hating on Oxbridge

In Alex Gabriel on September 2, 2010 at 8:19 am

Alex Gabriel discusses the inverse snobbery associated with Oxbridge education.

Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Newnham College, Cambridge. Keble College, Oxford. Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. These are the almae matres of Labour’s leadership contenders, and the day after the ballots opened it occurs to me how much this has been commented on throughout the past few months – mostly, it must be said, by audience members at hustings whilst seeming to suggest the candidates were ‘all the same’.

As an Oxford student, and indeed one who writes for a newspaper of that name, the tone of those questioners always annoys me: it’s the same thinly-veiled disdain with which my history teacher, a consummate lefty, said Harold Wilson was a man of the people, although of course ‘still an Oxbridge type’.

At least in 2010, there’s absolutely no set background that comes with either one. While I can’t speak for Cambridge, Oxford in particular takes great pains today to encourage applications from a wider range of background – I know, having worked with its Widening Participation initiatives. Even in the past, its record for financial assistance is above average: Wilson himself went to Jesus College on an academic grant, and to this day the Oxford Opportunities Bursaries scheme is the biggest of any British university, offering £4,100 to first years from lower income backgrounds. Almost all colleges also subsidise food and rent, cutting down on costs of student living. People who use Oxbridge to label people, and in particular to label politicians, aren’t making anything like the statement they think they are.

It’s true that the backgrounds of the Oxbridge student bodies don’t reflect the national average: while not as far a gap as is widely assumed, around half the students of either have tended to be state-educated (53.4 percent, according to my year group’s entrance statistics) compared with 93 percent of the British population at large. However, the statistics also show only 59.5 percent of applications to’ve come from the state sector, compared with 38.3 percent from private schools and sixth forms. In other words, the biggest factor by a long way in the inequality is the fact that not enough state school students apply; when people in politics who claim they care about students from lower income backgrounds tar Oxford and Cambridge with an upper-middle class brush, they’re actually just making things worse.

If working people persuade themselves education is for the rich, or that it’s somehow an act of class betrayal to have it, then they’re the ones stopping universities being inclusive. Those in the Labour Party particularly should know better: opening up education to all was one of our party’s founding ideals, and one of its proudest achievements in office. Have the left now forgotten the people in Keir Hardie’s time who’d have given up limbs for an Oxbridge education? Working for Oxford’s admissions department, I’ve talked to prospective applicants from struggling schools in inner cities – these people understand aspiration, and sneering at top universities insults them.

This isn’t a rant against identity politics, because a lot of the time you can judge politicians by their backgrounds. The Milibands’ father was a Marxist refugee, and it’s right to say this influences their politics, just as David Cameron’s right to emphasise Liam Fox’s military experience. In Cameron’s case, the significance of his Oxford education is that he got there by assembly line via prep school and Eton. (Not to deride his ability – oppose him as I might, Cameron got a first in PPE.) Rightly or wrongly, it’s difficult instinctively to give a PM credibility who axes welfare and benefit payments without ever being in poverty himself; the ideas will stand or fall on their own merits, but a working class Tory like Eric Pickles or Nadine Dorries wouldn’t get ‘playing fields of Eton’ jibes in the same situation.

The Oxford I’m at takes all sorts to make a tute group, and whether someone’s there or Cambridge says nothing whatsoever about their background. All the leadership candidates went to one or the other, but then so what? There’s no ubiquitous Oxbridge or non-Oxbridge candidate, and sound academic credentials are a perfectly fair thing to demand of the person running your society and economy. Instead of attacking top universities out of petty spite or misplaced class war, let’s just be glad whoever wins is well-qualified and focus on the issues at hand.

  1. The Labour Party today is very different to the Labour of the past. I think the occasional remark of thinly veiled distain was propagated perhaps unwittingly by Labour. Labour is an awkward party. On the one hand they want basically the best for everyone, but then they chide at those who are already there. So this environment where Oxbridge party members need to hide or play down their education and privileged life is well, sad. Not that people should flaunt it, but dumbing oneself down is not ideal.
    I strongly object to people who sneer at those who went to Oxbridge, I think that to be most classless. Class in not measured by income. I think those who jeer or make disdainful comments and whispers about those who went to Oxbridge, because it is erroneously perceived as elitist, are people with the wrong mindset. Oxford and Cambridge are ancient institutions so there will be an allure to them, it can’t be helped, but there are many other great universities in the UK. I want the country to be run by people who went to universities. If Oxford and Cambridge are the leading ones then I have no qualms about its students filling our great offices of state. What is the alternative? Have our country run by morons?
    I think we need to separate the value and respect for higher education with this erroneous perception of university people in general and Oxbridge in particular of being something to be disdained. The backgrounds of the Oxbridge student bodies may not reflect the national average, but so what? I do not think they are therefore morally bankrupt or incapable of understanding and sympathizing with people of different backgrounds. People who do air their Oxbridge background in order to dehumanize others are scumbags that people at Oxbridge and everywhere else disassociate with. Those people are easy to spot and easy to reprimand.

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