Student politics these days is characterised by introspection. We are constantly invited to ask ourselves: what are the power structures at work? What is the nature of privilege? How should we respond to our history? The role of our own university in British society is a crucial element, and is attended by its own questions. What should we make of the fact that we attend one of the most elite institutions in the world? Access is widening – but how early does the problem really start? If you believe in social justice, should you sacrifice it for academic excellence?
These are the issues with which many Cambridge students grapple. At last Thursday’s Union debate on the question ‘This House Believes Oxbridge Has Failed Britain’, speakers on both sides were quick to point out that more can be done on access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. While there was no mention of the fact that the debate was being held in the august halls of one of the city’s more exclusive student societies, there was universal acknowledgement of a problem with the culture of the university. Indeed, Bobby Seagull – teacher, media personality, and University Challenge contestant – told TCS afterwards that Oxbridge “gets a B-, but it’s not a failing pupil”. He had been opposing the motion on the grounds that Oxbridge inspires aspiration and excellence, something not necessarily incompatible with the arguments of the proposition.
We sat down with Molly Bolding, a first year English student who won the opportunity to speak in favour of the motion through open audition. “It’s not a crime to want the best students”, she tells us, “but to have a policy that is so exclusive and so selective that you fundamentally miss out whole elements of society, you are not just disadvantaging students that don’t get in, you’re actually disadvantaging the students that do get in, by not allowing them to experience life with people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or went to a state comprehensive school, or people who’ve had a variety of life experiences.” The closeted nature of the Cambridge experience turned out to be a recurring theme. “Oxbridge teaches you how to bullshit”, claimed Jonn Elledge, editor of CityMetric magazine and co-proposer of the motion, condemning the lack of “cognitive diversity” that results in people with similar backgrounds bouncing off each other in an environment such as Cambridge.
Molly tells us that “when you put so much pride and pressure on people who have an Oxbridge degree, and say that people who have an Oxbridge degree become the next CEOs and Prime Ministers, actually you’re setting up an entire generation of tomorrow’s leaders who have no idea what life is like for the other 75% of the population. That is a tragedy.” Bobby Seagull disputes the idea that the pressure on Oxbridge applicants is detrimental. He has friends, he told the packed chamber, who failed to get into Oxbridge, and they “got over it.” But Molly believes the problem runs deeper than that. “You know, I went to school with people who are plenty clever enough to be [at Cambridge]. Significantly cleverer than me, more innovative, but they didn’t want to apply because they were terrified, not just because they didn’t feel they could get in, because even the ones who knew that they probably could make it didn’t know whether they would feel welcome here. I do understand where that fear comes from.”
Finally, I am interested to know why Molly chose to apply to Cambridge. “At the end of the day I think it was one of my mum’s friends that put it best when she said that I had to come and I had to change it from the inside.” Although she is not partisan, her deeply held opinions informed her choice to speak out at the Union. “If I can bring these experiences that I’ve had really into the heart of the elite itself, then I can start to feel that I’m saying the right things to the right people”
Incidentally, it was noticeable throughout the debate that whenever a figure was name-dropped as giving Oxbridge a bad name – Boris Johnson was on many people’s lips – they were invariably individuals from ‘the other place’. Seagull afterwards joked that “maybe Oxford has failed Britain”. Perhaps there is a deeper point here. Oxford and Cambridge laugh at each other, and for many any reservations they had about attending an elite institution transform into a fierce rivalry once they become acclimatised to the culture. Perhaps our experience teaches us that Cambridge is not so bad as people think. Or perhaps we have simply become part of the problem.