Does David Lammy miss the bigger picture?

Iván Merker 28 October 2017

There was a major shock last week when it was revealed that the proportion of Oxbridge students from the top two socio-economic groups increased over the last five years, with significant regional discrepancies uncovered. It was also revealed that in 2015, ten Oxford and six Cambridge colleges failed to admit a single black British student.

MP David Lammy, who uncovered this information called Oxbridge the “last bastions of the old school tie,” accusing the universities that they are “failing to live up to their responsibilities as national universities,” even calling for the abolition of public funding of the two universities. The higher education minister, Jo Johnson (the better-looking brother of Boris) tweeted that Oxford should do more to admit underrepresented groups.

Oxbridge surely can enhance their access programs. For example, the director of A Levels at Middlesbrough College told the Guardian: “We didn’t really get a lot of feedback from them. We don’t even feel we know why our students don’t get in.”

Telling schools, at least in general, what makes a successful Oxbridge candidate is important because it enables them to better prepare their students, which can help to tackle the anomalies mentioned above.

The elitist culture of Oxbridge may also be an obstacle. Calling some students “commoners” (as they apparently do in Oxford) sounds so much out of Downton Abbey that it should be discomforting to any student more progressive than Jacob Rees-Mogg – or less aristocratic.

However, Lammy is mistaken when he blames all the anomalies on Oxbridge. What the universities should do is to reach out to students, showing them that regardless of their background, they should apply – if they are good enough, they will be offered a place. They should also ensure that this is true and give teachers the relevant information to prepare students to the Oxbridge application procedure.

However, realistically, most of the preparations will take place at schools – as well as, of course, schools will prepare students for the A-Levels needed for Cambridge. And this is exactly why the discourse regarding the Oxbridge statistics is one-sided.

Students from higher socio-economic groups will always have some advantage over their less privileged peers. Having the opportunity, for example, to access more cultural products, has an effect on someone’s cognitive abilities. Even telling bedside stories is an advantage.

However, it is crucial whether a system of education tries to rectify the differences or magnifies them. And what the data seems to suggest is that the latter is true – or, at any rate, the former is not – of the education in Britain.

The problem is that Eton is probably a better school than your local comprehensive, but it also costs £30,000 a year, which is above the average national salary. It should be the responsibility of the government to create a public schooling system that gives quality education to all regardless of their backgrounds. This is especially important, because educational inequalities are cumulative – if you go to a better secondary school it will higher your chances to go to a more prestigious university, which in turn will allow you better opportunities in the job market.

If Jo Johnson finds it important that the diversity problems should be solved, he has had better options in his two and a half years as Higher Education Minister than tweeting. Again, it should be his responsibility that universities are accessible to all – and if the leading institutions of the country fail to do so, it should be his responsibility to force them.

But the government doesn’t seem to care that much about low-income students as was made obvious in the abolition of student grants in favour of maintenance loans. While this surely wasn’t the reason why there were fewer lower-income students in 2015 than 2010, as the grants were abolished in 2016, it surely shows that the governmental policies weren’t in line with accessibility.

So, while Oxford and Cambridge surely have their shortcomings, it is very likely that it is also a litmus paper of class differences in education in Britain. And for this reason the way David Lammy and others concentrate exclusively on Oxbridge is one sided and distortive.