The recent outrage over Oxbridge admission statistics, which show that a disproportionate amount of the intake come from around London or the South-East of England, is undoubtedly valid. Oxbridge is elitist. 40% of students at Oxbridge came from private or independent schools. Only 1.5% of offers go to black British applicants compared with a nationwide total of 3%. 80% of offers go to the most privileged students, whose parents are employed in professional or managerial roles. Oxbridge is elitist.
This had led to calls from a wide variety of commentators for a plethora of radical proposals to remedy this problem. Imposing quotas, making Oxbridge ‘postgraduate centres of excellence’ or even abolishing Oxbridge altogether have all been suggested. Yet all of these proposals attempt to solve the symptom, not the problem.
The actual cause of the disproportionate representation of certain social groups at Oxbridge lies in economic and social inequality. Indeed, this is a problem that is exacerbated by government policy. A report led by Professor Stephen Gerard, from the University of Durham, concludes that the government’s academy schools are creating greater segregation between pupils from rich and poor homes. This was echoed in September 2017 by 4000 secondary school head teachers across England who wrote to parents to warn that there is “simply not enough money in the system” to fund schools properly. This comes in spite of a £1.3 billion cash injection from the government, which amounts to a real-terms cut of 4.6% by 2020 compared with 5 years earlier.
The huge geographical discrepancies in school funding also highlight the problem. A report undertaken by independent think-tank, the ‘Social Market Foundation’, found that geographical inequality in educational outcomes has grown over the last 30 years. Government statistics themselves reveal that a secondary school in York would get an average of £4,700 per pupil in 2018-19, compared with £6,450 per pupil in Greenwich, London – regardless of class size. Second worst off among secondary schools were those in Barnsley, where schools get an average of £4,729 per pupil followed by Leicester, with £4,730. It is no coincidence that those areas that receive comparatively less funding send fewer students to Oxbridge.
Given such disparity exists, it is not surprising that only three people from Middlesbrough applied to study at Oxford in 2015, of whom none were accepted. This gives an appalling rate of 1.6 applicants for every 1,000 eighteen-year-olds living in the town. This compares poorly with Kensington and Chelsea, where there were 121 applicants per 1,000. When private schools can boast class sizes up to one third smaller, enjoy charitable status and possess far more resources to channel at fewer students, the problem of inequality is further underlined.
Such systemic inequality has inevitable consequences for the attainment of students. Why were more offers to Oxbridge made to students at Eton than those on free school meals in the entire country? Because the inequality in our educational system favours those who can pay. Indeed, as long as independent schools exist, there will remain a fundamental divide between two kinds of students. This problem is particularly pronounced at Oxbridge and will continue to see private school students massively overrepresented.
Let us be clear, abolishing Oxbridge is not a good idea. Nor is ending its intake of undergraduate students. Oxford and Cambridge are vehicles of academic excellence. They have immense cultural value in Britain and are institutions that command international respect.
To attempt to artificially alter Oxbridge admissions by imposing quotas would be to obscure the roots of the problem of diversity and to demean the core criteria of Oxbridge admission; that of academic excellence. It may make for better statistics, but the fundamental causes of unequal attainment geographically would remain.
In this sense, outreach programmes and shadowing schemes are helpful in opening up Oxbridge to those areas who have historically not sent many students. The Universities themselves must also be prepared to reform in order to improve diversity. But such efforts can only brush the surface of a much deeper problem.
This issue of Oxbridge elitism matters because if such discrepancies exist in such an important area as education, it is indicative of something wrong in our society. We must look beyond meaningless, ideological nonsense about the various merits of a particular policy, whether privileging ‘choice’, ‘selection’ or ‘comprehensivisation’. Equality of opportunity must be at the heart of any educational policy, and this is demonstrably not happening when such inequality and imbalance is evident in the British education system.
The elitism and lack of diversity that pervades Oxford and Cambridge is merely a symptom of this much broader problem. To solve it, we must have a simultaneous and far-ranging discussion about economic disadvantage and inequality.