Tom Mendelsohn, Students Editor of The Independent, has a somewhat uneasy relationship with ‘Oxbridge’. An article he wrote a few years ago was hugely divisive, and in many ways lit the touchpaper for a growing obsession with exactly what ‘Oxbridge’ is, does, should be, and should do. Following his recent appearance at the Cambridge Union, we asked him what he thought was driving the fierce debate about ‘Oxbridge’.
“Everyone in Britain is obsessed with the class system and it's such a truism that often people don't really think about what the class system actually means. It means 'posh' people getting into Oxford and then going on to run the country. You can look at the stats and say 'well it's only a third of people at Cambridge', [but] you're not getting a multiplicity of voice. You are getting people from a certain background.”
The idea of a specific University-wide quota for state-school applicants is often discussed in Cambridge and beyond, but for Mendelsohn that’s not quite the way forward. “Quotas are never a great solution”, he told us, “but, just in the same way that the world shouldn't-but-does-need affirmative action, the world shouldn't-but-does-need quotas.
“There is a lot of discussion about whether or not we should be looking to schools to tackle the problem of social mobility, whether it's Oxbridge's responsibility, and I would say that it doesn't have to be but Oxbridge are in a uniquely world-placed position to give this top-down re-ordering.”
Part of the danger is that reasonable criticisms can end up feeling intensely personal. “There is a thing, and I've suffered from this myself, which is that you get to Oxbridge and it's all you've ever worked for and it's a part of you, it's a part of your ego, you are 'the smart kid'.
“You feel like you deserve that, and you do, but it's somehow wrapped up into yourself that anyone qualifying that for you. You can find yourself attacking them because it feels like they're attacking you.” It’s a feeling that Mendelsohn understands on a completely personal level. “It took me a long time to get over both the private school thing and the Oxbridge thing.”
Eventually, we get down to the fundamental issue that dominates so much discussion in this field; student fees. Mendelsohn agrees that they are “absolutely” the most important issue facing students today, and increases in fees, and thus in debts, further serves to divide the privileged from the disadvantaged. “Rich people, who can pay their debt off early, their earnings over £21,000 are going into the pot that they’ll maybe use to buy a house with, but the people who don’t have that ability to pay it off early are going to be the ones who are paying into a growing debt rather than a house deposit.”
If rumours of fee increases up to £16,000 are anything to go by, the situation is only set to get worse. “I would be amazed if there weren’t conversations going on in oak-panelled rooms in and around certain universities. I don’t want to get too conspiratorial about it but, you know, they’ll be looking at the American model, the Harvard model, very very jealously”. Let’s just hope that on that count, at least, he’s wrong.