Sutton Trust report: the controversy

Richard Braude & Kat Hanna 8 October 2007

The class divide within our country is as apparent in our universities as in our courts and offices. The Sutton Trust report, unveiled last week with much fanfare, for the most part confirmed something which most of us – certainly those of us trudging into a third year – unfortunately already knew: that many Cambridge students hail from the same schools. These 100 ‘feeder’ schools supply our eminent, oh so eager to be diverse institution with around a third of its students, and 97 of them are privately funded.

While Geoff Parks, the director for admissions to Cambridge, pointed out in a recent Guardian article that the Cambridge admissions procedure is not deemed by the Sutton Trust as showing bias, there are still ways in which Cambridge, both her students and her fellows, perpetuate the class divide inherent within. The admissions department and the CUSU access team pour their valuable efforts into dispelling the myths which surround Cambridge – the stereotypes of port-guzzling proctors and boater -wearing idlers.

Yet for all this hard work, established Cambridge ‘traditions’ such as the Pitt Club (only old public school boys), the Hawks (only Cambridge Blues) and the Wyverns (the infamously raucous all-male Magdalene drinking society), once observed, can only encourage someone to submit to believing such clichés.

Naturally the buck is passed. The fault, many argue, lies not in our precious university but with the divided education we received before we even applied; the unfair advantage is dished out at Eton, Winchester, etc. But the Oxbridge familiarisation process does not only include private schools. Much is often made at King’s College of the high state school intake; nonetheless we should bear in mind that a large proportion of these students come from privileged, often rural, grammar schools and families as favoured by the class structure as privately educated pupils. Indeed, only one in five pupils attending Russell Group universities are from the four lower economic class groups compared with 30% in universities nationwide.

The Sutton Trust report did not just discuss Oxbridge as a location of inequality and elitism but also investigated a variety of professions, including law. It was shown that 82% of lawyers attended Oxbridge. Whether viewed as a preference or an inevitability, the dominance of a profession so integral to our infrastructure – indeed, the production of lawyers is perhaps one of the government’s most valued industries – by Oxbridge graduates must raise questions regarding not only the university environment in which we live and work, but also the bias we show as a nation to these two centres of academia.

So many of our values are based on a skewed view of meritocracy and reputation. An Oxbridge degree is often perceived to be a golden ticket, opening doors to a global old boys’ network. Let’s be honest, this is not that far from the truth. Boasting a reputation as one of the best academic institutions in the world is both a blessing and a curse for Cambridge. Like the slightly schizophrenic geniuses that apparently abound here, we oscillate wildly between lauding our achievements and downplaying our celebrity. Common sense oft prevails, that champion phrase of the conservative mind, and merit and money are equated. So long as we produce well paid graduates at the end of the conveyor belt, we must be doing okay, right?

Again, of course, these skewed values do not arrive on the doorstep of our colleges. Private secondary schools are now being encouraged by the government to sponsor city academies: Dulwich College, already familiar with opening franchises of itself in Asia, is leading the way and exporting its brand to other schools in London.

This marketisation of our education is entirely in keeping with the New Labour reliance on the private sector to improve the public, on trusting business to regulate equality. This policy has fostered the view that universities are businesses in a competitive market. As it turns out, they are not: they are centres of teaching and research.

The results revealed by the Sutton Trust come as a shock neither to Cambridge nor to the general public. They should not be interpreted as a failure of all those who have dedicated both time and resources to improving the admissions process, though neither should it be dismissed as merely another report highlighting the failure of higher educations institutions to reflect the country’s social demographic. These statistics do not just constitute the elephant in the room for Cambridge but for our entire social system.

Richard Braude & Kat Hanna

Richard Braude and Kat Hanna are representatives of Education Not For Sale