Oxbridge: the media, the myth

The media's gloating obsession with Oxbridge's decadence and elitism cements its image as wealthy and whingeing, says Judith Welikala

The ongoing issue of Oxbridge and elitism reared its ugly head last week, when a tongue-in-cheek rejection letter sent by 19-year-old Elly Newell to Magdalen College, Oxford, originally posted on Facebook, created a media storm. Newell, who parodied Oxford's rejection letter to unsuccessful applicants, wrote that the university "did not quite meet the standard of the universities I will be considering". It was both criticised as a stupid decision that could jeopardise her future career prospects, and praised as a daring affront to a deeply elitist institution. Last Thursday, Newell, who applied to read jurisprudence, defended herself in The Guardian. She deemed Oxford an "institution that is a symbol of unfairness in both our education and the legal system". She described her council estate background as "not a type of heritage often associated with Oxbridge interview".

This is not a phenomenon unique to Oxford. Last summer, London rapper MC Franklin made headlines when he turned down an offer to read Politics, Psychology and Sociology at Cambridge, in favour of studying Sociology at the London School of Economics. The story was covered by tabloids with headlines like "Cambridge? No thanks; it hasn't got a music scene: What 17-year-old rapper told top university bosses". Addo was quoted as saying: "It would have been harder to carry on doing music if I was in Cambridge and there isn't much of a scene there — I only know one rapper."

Addo, however, countered any such claims in a piece he wrote for The Guardian entitled "The real reason I rejected Cambridge". He claimed the stories "misquoted me, took what I said out of context and unfairly represented me to make the story more newsworthy". He said his decision to reject Cambridge was "one I did not take lightly". Yet Addo defended Cambridge's interview process: "I found the interview was not frightening; the environment was pleasant and the interviewers welcoming".

But such comments have been lost amongst the press' negative coverage of the seemingly unfair Oxbridge admissions process. The dearth of state school-educated or ethnic minority students has been frequently brought up. In December 2010, on the back of revelations that 21 Oxbridge colleges had admitted no black students the previous year, Tottenham MP David Lammy made a Freedom of Information request to both universities. His research, culminated in a piece for The Guardian entitled "The Oxbridge whitewash", which found that the social profile for Oxford was 89% upper and middle-class, while at Cambridge it was only marginally lower, at 87.6%. He pointed to the fact that: "Over the last four years the London Borough of Richmond received more than eight times as many offers from Oxbridge as were awarded to Rochdale, Barnsley, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough and Stoke combined". Lammy saw this as evidence of a "startling" "north-south divide" and claimed "The picture on race is no better." He added that Cambridge did not employ a single black academic: "How can they hope to admit a diverse student body without recruiting a diverse staff?"

But Lammy did not take into account the University's Black and Ethnic Minority Staff Network, nor did he acknowledge the presence of black university non-academic staff – not to mention the 34 British Asian dons in Cambridge. Arguing that "Oxford and Cambridge receive nearly £400m a year of taxpayers' money", he insisted that "they cannot be allowed to spend that money entrenching inequality instead of addressing it", especially when they are raising fees to £9,000.

Oxford Pro-Vice-Chancellor Dr Sally Mapstone categorically denied Lammy's allegations. "State school applications have risen by over 80% over the last 10 years", she noted. "Black students gaining top grades are actually more likely to apply to Oxford than their white peers: in 2009 nearly half of all black students nationally who got the requisite grades applied to Oxford – compared to around 28% of white students with the grades." Mapstone claimed they would like to see more students from under-represented backgrounds but "cannot make that happen on own". The unfortunate reality? Lammy's sentiments, and not Mapstone's, are more likely to be heard.

Unflattering and inaccurate press coverage of Cambridge extends to the University's social traditions. Describing last year's Caesarean Sunday at Cambridge, The Mail describes the "fighting, stripping off, vomiting and urinating in bushes and flower beds", recalling one incident of a pig's head on a stick being carried around Jesus Green. This revelry is compared to the activities of Oxonians on the same day, of whom just a "handful" had "braved a dip in the River Cherwell". The Daily Mail creates a better impression of Oxford – though, in reality, both universities have ball and garden parties.

Readers' reactions enforced the image of Cambridge students as hedonistic, wealthy, and idle. One commenter warns to "take a good look, for amongst this fighting, urinating, drunken mob is possibly our future PM". While it is true than an overwhelming 41 of all 52 British Prime Ministers were Oxbridge educated, lumping the two halves of Oxbridge together in this sense may not be entirely accurate. It is Oxford rather than Cambridge that has historically produced more Prime Ministers; Christchurch College alone has produced 13, one fewer than all Cambridge colleges combined. It is a trend that has been somewhat reversed in the past twenty years. Of the four British Prime Ministers since 1992, two were Oxford educated (Tony Blair and David Cameron). Gordon Brown attended the University of Edinburgh, while John Major left school aged 16. The last UK Prime Minister to attend Cambridge was Stanley Baldwin – he left office in 1937.

The supposed decadence of Cambridge students in the face of raised university fees has been brought to the media's attention most prominently by the "drunken excess" of May Balls. Last year, the Daily Mail described how: "Bleary-eyed after a night of partying, as the sun rose the youngsters carried on the celebrations with drunken punt rides on the River Cam or breakfast in college gardens". The images ram home the idea: students stumbling or being carried home, another wearing nothing more than his underwear, his shirt undone, and a top hat.

In early January, the Daily Mail ran a story on comments King's Provost Professor Ross Harrison, claiming the college's slide in league table ranking was the result of students having "flung themselves" onto protesting against the rise in tuition fees and cuts to higher education. "Some of the most active political performers descended in their results as compared with last year", he claimed. While the highest rated comments on the Mail Online came in favour of the students, the responses were predictable. Cries of "Kids today, grades and degrees are handed out much too easy in school and unis" (this particular one made by Beth from Tunbridge Wells) were common; complaints by ‘Older & Wiser' that the students had been "encouraged by limousine liberals" were likewise endemic.

Here is the problem. This cements the image of Cambridge students as wealthy and whingeing. It perpetuates the vicious cycle of students not from elite backgrounds being put off applying to Cambridge. It keeps alive Cambridge's elitist image.

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel. Earlier this month, The Guardian produced an in-depth investigation into the Cambridge admissions system. "So who is good enough to get into Cambridge?" by education editor Jeevan Vasagar, in speaking to college admission tutors, explored the myth that has built up around the interview process. The result was surprisingly balanced, particularly as the online version of the paper has its own dedicated ‘Oxbridge and elitism' section.

Nonetheless, it might be too optimistic to hope that such articles indicate a significant shift by the press: a media made up of persistent errors, misconceptions, stereotypes, and cliches around the Oxbridge image.

Judith Welikala – Co-Editor in Chief

Article first published - Jan 26, 2012


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