Oxbridge Myths – Social Mobility or Classist Bastion?

December 18, 2012 8:00 pm

This year’s Oxford and Cambridge interviews are going on as we speak. Thousands of nervous teenagers will be chatting away, hundreds of dons will be nodding sagely. And guess what?

Most of those kids will be rejected.

It’s simple maths. There are far more applicants than there are places. This means that, come late December or early January, the media will indulge in its annual Oxbridge-bashing festival, with righteous anger diverted towards private schools, the government, and perhaps the interview-preparation companies. You know the sort – the distraught parent writing to the Telegraph to protest the rejection of their dearest son, who has A*s flowing from his orifices, or their daughter, an Olympic swimmer and Turner-prizewinner. Of course, both children love classics so much that they independently translated Xenophon before Nursery. The interviewers must be mistaken.

Or there’s the Elly Nowell type – the girl who ‘rejected’ Magdalen Oxford last year. Such stories annoy me, because they are largely inaccurate, and moreover, detrimental to Britain’s social mobility. So, just as Ms Nowell pre-emptively rebutted Magdalen’s decision, I figure that this year I’ll get my two pence in first.

I’m moderately qualified to do so – not just because I’m an Ox grad, but because I’m involved in the application process. I have friends who are now middling- or senior- academics. I work lots for both corporate and social-enterprise ‘preparation’ or ‘mock-interview’ companies. I keep in touch with my tutors. I do a little private tuition myself. I know the myths.

Oxbridge graduates dominating top professions and positions of power is a bad thing

This is only a bad thing if Oxbridge is not a meritocratic institution. I will prove below that it is.

In which case, people from the best universities dominating the top jobs is entirely sensible. We want people who are the best educated and best equipped to do the top jobs. Basic Plato, ennit?

Applications are dropping because of the fees, especially among the worse off

They are dropping – I can’t argue with the figures.
The problem is more with the reasoning behind these drops. Virtually nobody pays their fees up front, and they certainly aren’t forced to. The Lib Dems made quite sure that Student Loans would be extended in line with the fee hikes. This means, in effect, that the ‘up front’ costs of going to uni are no different now than they were in 2007. The only difference is that you’ll leave with roughly three times more debt. Sure, that sucks and I’m very much against the £9,000/year fees, but this isn’t so much the point. The ‘fee hike’ should not affect whether any individual/family can afford to go to uni, or which uni they can go to. The debts a graduate will be left with are daunting, yes, but need not be paid until you are earning a significant amount, and are paid back very slowly, rather like an extra tax. Given that a major reason one takes a degree is to be able to earn more, this seems a fair payoff.

The argument makes particularly little sense when applied to Oxford, because a Welsh-American alumnus, Michael Moritz, kindly donated loads of dosh (£75mil), paying for substantial bursaries. These can be offered to the poorest 10% of students to cap their fees at £3,500 per annum, meaning that Oxford’s fees are effectively fairer than any other top 20 university.  [Cambridge does offer generous bursaries too.]

Daniel Knowles argues here that this donation, whilst quite good, is patronising and could be better spent on outreach, which might be true – but the media splash of Moritz made might well be better PR than any outreach programme could achieve. I’m chatting about it, after all, and so was Knowles.

Interviews are elitist/unfair/mean

This Telegraph article actually does a good job debunking this idea. Interviews are basically designed to test two things – your passion, and the nature of your intelligence. Tutors/Supervisors are effectively professional geeks, and they love their subjects. They need to make sure that you have a comparable love, because they are going to give you loads of work. I can only speak for myself – as a history undergraduate, I had roughly three times the workload of historians at other top universities like York, King’s College London, Durham and Bristol. The dons need to know you have the passion to stay the course, and to stay on the course. Drop outs ruin uni stats. Sad but true.

I say the nature of your intelligence because this is an important distinction. Oxbridge teaches in a specific way, through intensive tutorials/supervisions in which a teacher spends an hour discussing work with one-to-three students. Scientists go through problem sheets, artists discuss their weekly essays, linguists compare translations and analyse literature. This method of learning isn’t for everyone – you can be extremely bright, but better suited to lectures, seminars or individual study (not that Oxbridge is devoid of these types).  The interviewers are typically the people who’ll be teaching you for the next three-seven years, so they need to make sure you’re actually the kind of person who will benefit from their style. To reject someone ill-suited to tutorials isn’t mean – it’s quite humane.

Interview questions are eccentric, unpredictable and favour private school students

Whilst the odd academic may well be…uhm…odd, this is not an affliction specific to Oxbridge. In the vast majority of interviews, all the questions will be quite reasonable, designed to test the virtues outlined above. Contrary to the illusion spread by The History Boys and An Education, candidates do not require massive knowledge- indeed, they can do very well simply by having read what their Personal Statements say they have read, plus perhaps a basic knowledge of current affairs. Questions, however bizarre, are simply designed to see how a candidate thinks when stretched, when put in a new situation, when faced by a problem they’ve never considered before.

Admissions statistics show there is no bias towards private school candidates – indeed, a slightly higher percentage of grammar and comprehensive students were admitted than applied in 2011 and 2012 (pp.5). It’s very hard to fake your own thinking. All the preparation in the world can really only make you aware of the issues I’ve discussed above – and a student would be able to find that out from a few hours on the internet, not through a VIth Form Master or expensive coaching session.  

Why, then, is Oxbridge disproportionately populated by Independent School types?

Because of the media.

Yep. Those admissions statistics show that the interviews are perfectly fair. What’s skewed is the applications themselves. Thanks to the newspapers, plays like History Boys, and of course legions of teachers with chips on their shoulders, many excellent candidates from the state sector are dissuaded from ever applying. They are convinced that they won’t get in because they can’t row, can’t catch a rugby ball, don’t know how to use a fish knife (I still don’t) or can’t speak Latin. They are told that a wardrobe full of tweed and a refined appreciation of port is mandatory. Of course, for anyone without all of these tributes, such a daunting array of stereotypes makes Oxbridge seem a rather unattractive place to go, even if they do have the skills.

So they don’t apply. So they don’t get in. So the admissions figures remain skewed. So the newspapers scream and shout.

  • I think you’re right on the fundamentals, and specifically about applications being the issue, but I’d take issue with one or two of the details.

    ‘Virtually nobody pays their fees up front, and they certainly aren’t forced’. Yes we do, and yes we are; tuition fees are paid at the start of the academic year. What we pay off as graduates is the debt we accumulate through loans in order to pay them – that’s why it’s, you know, debt.

    Your points about debt not being a deterrent and facts about admissions being easily findable reveal, I think, the background you come from. There’s a reason poorer people are more debt-averse: taking on £27,000 of debt is typically a very different prospect for 16-year-olds from unemployed or low-waged families in social housing than for doctors’ and businesspeople’s children at expensive private schools. If your parents have spent yearly what your whole degree will cost, or a similar figure, chances are your family provides a safety net you can fall back on should you not be able to pay back your loans after university. On the other hand, if you’re the first graduate in a hard-up family, you’re likely to have to saddle the debt alone, and have nothing to rely on if you can’t.

    Moreover, (upper) middle class graduates are likely to be favoured in employment for various reasons – connections they or their family have, familiarity with business culture, education in entrepreneurial skills – it’s a good bet that making £27,000 back is far easier for some people than it is for others.

    Finally, you’re right that mythbusting is easily done and that accurate admissions information can be found online, but that still requires prospective candidates to do their own research, which the persuasiveness of the ‘elitism’ media narrative often means they don’t think to do. Yes, we can blame the press for this, but bear in mind that students at the right schools have teachers who give them accurate information without them asking. If you’re at an inner city comprehensive, the kind of place we do admissions talks, you have to go out of your way to learn how Oxbridge really works; if you’re at a well-placed private school or grammar school, you get more-or-less good advice free, without needing to ask for it.

    • Hi Alex, thanks for so detailed a reply.

      I think you’re being a little disingenuous with the ‘up front fees’ section. My point was that you don’t need to *have* £27 000 knocking around before you apply, and that everyone can borrow to cover it.

      I think this ‘Funding Scare’ is just another element of the media’s casual misinformation campaign. You argue “your
      family provides a safety net you can fall back on should you not be able to pay
      back your loans after university”. This is entirely besides the point – the Student
      Loans Company and Local Authorities are not shady loan sharks who will break
      down your door if you cannot pay up aged 22. There is no *need* for a safety
      net – you only start paying your loan off when you’re earning a significant
      amount (I think £15 000 pa this year) and you repay a small percentage of your
      earnings, so it functions as a small extra tax. If you never earn enough to pay
      it back, it eventually gets written off!

      So yes, the debt is certainly daunting, and as I say, I was
      strongly against Willet’s hike, but nevertheless the admissions disincentive
      would appear to be more a result of the scary ‘headline’ debt figures than the
      big picture – if the newspapers did a decent job of showing just how safe and
      easy-to-repay the loans are, it would not be so shocking.

      You add, “(upper) middle
      class graduates are likely to be favoured in employment for various reasons –
      connections they or their family have, familiarity with business culture,
      education in entrepreneurial skills – it’s a good bet that making £27,000 back
      is far easier for some people than it is for others.” Whilst I don’t disagree,
      it seems counterintuitive. The training, networking and business opportunities
      available at Oxbridge more than outweigh whatever ‘nepotism’ most UMC families
      can bring to the table. Not to mention…you know…the Oxbridge degree. That tends
      to be handy when applying for jobs.

      I agree on your point about schools’ admissions information
      and procedures. That’s why I included it in the article. My point is that the bias is neither the fault of Oxbridge or of the students, but the ‘steps in between’, i.e. media and UCAS/teachers.

      Cheers, Jon

      • Jon,

        Thoroughly enjoyed this article. But:

        I agree with you here on the ‘up front fees’ issue- in principle. I.e. Everything you say is true, that poorer and richer students alike can borrow the money, and that neither of them need a safety net because money only comes out from income of a sufficient amount etc… But, whilst this might be true, that still doesn’t negate the possibility that the prospect of a £27,000 debt may be more daunting to less well off families, even if, as you seem to think, this isn’t really a daunting prospect if all the facts are considered. Add to that costs of living not covered by student loans and rich and poor simply aren’t in the same boat.

        With regards to the meritocracy of the institution. If your argument about media scares is correct, then whilst it may not be correct to describe the selection process as ‘unmeritocratic’ in and of itself, surely we must acknowledge that on a bigger scale the process is in a sense unmeritocratic, in that it predominantly pools from a specific demographic. This problem may not be a failure on their part, but its a failure that skews their student demographics non the less. It seems to me to then become a question about the level of responsibility Oxford and Cambridge have to redress this problem. If the disproportionate amount of independent schoolers really is overwhelmingly due to a systemic failure of the media, then maybe Oxbridge should use £75 million donations, not for outreach programmes, but for proactive media campaigns?


        • Hi Ben,
          I agree that the level of debt is probably more daunting to some than others, my point there was that it shouldn’t be.
          As for cost of living, tuition fees have not altered that, and Ox and Camb retain bursary and emergency funding equal or better to other top unis. The Recession *in general* has increased living fees, for sure – there’s certainly a problem here since individual ‘Local Authorities’ have power over how great a loan to give you beyond tuition fees – for some students the loan may cover rent and living, for others, barely cover rent. However this applies to all unis , adjusted only for London prices.

          Meritocracy-wise, quite right. I specifically meant that the way Oxford and Cambridge admit people is not ‘biased’ and not in need of ‘tweaking’. UK society in general is not yet purely meritocratic, and until school and uni-prep is at an entirely equal level, cannot be. There are obvious things that help and hinder, though.

          I’m assuming Moritz donated the money expressedly for bursaries, but it’d certainly be interesting to imagine what a positive campaign could do.

  • Christian

    I liked this one.

  • Mike

    Nicely put. I’d suggest it’s more a case of teachers being influenced by the skewed media than by chips on their shoulders, but that’s just being picky. Now, how do we convey this to people?

    • You’re probably right there Mike.

      I’m certainly not an expert on access, so I’m not sure about this, but:
      As far as I know, most college access work targets a designated area of the UK (e.g. “South Wales”) and invites year 11 or A level kids to the college for a meal, a tour and a talk about un/truths in the admissions process. Whilst this is very important, I’d imagine a different stratgey might have more impact. As you and Alex (below) point out, many teachers might not understand the reality – so sending clear information leaflets to heads and to UCAS teachers and careers depts is an important step. It might be really great if student volunteers could visit schools and give quick talks along similar lines, but with a more personal/human flavour.

      I’m not sure what can be done about the media vicious circle itself, short of a series of huge PR stunts. The blogosphere certainly helps, for example in its swift debunking of Cameron’s ridiculous and inflammatory claim that Ox only let in one black student last year.

      [Perhaps the solution is for everyone in the country to read my article. Tee hee.]

%d bloggers like this: