“Does everyone wear suits in between lectures?” was my favourite of all the things I was asked when I got home at the end of my first Cambridge term. It says so much about how the average person views Oxbridge – overly formal, elitist and just a bit too removed from ordinary life for comfort.
“No, they don’t,” I said. “It’s all really normal.”
It probably wasn't the best word to use to describe two institutions whose graduates make up less than 1% of the population, especially since there isn’t much about the social sphere we inhabit for the 3 years of our degree that could be called ‘average’ or ‘normal’; our environment does not reflect ‘ordinary’ life in the UK. In 2013, 38.6% of Cambridge offers and 42.3% of Oxford offers were made to independent school students, figures that don't compare to the 7% of the population who attend independent schools.
We all know this, we hear about it every year when the numbers go up or down by a percentage or two and the usual news outlets churn out the same message about how widening participation in Oxbridge just isn’t working fast enough. In many ways, Alan Milburn’s report about elitism at the top of British society is no different; very few people see it as the ‘revelation’ they’re being told it should be.
The figures have been pasted into almost every article on the matter – the media's current obsession is how, of our current senior judges, 71% attended private schools and 75% graduated from Oxbridge; when it comes to permanent secretaries in Whitehall: 55% attended private school and 57% graduated from Oxbridge; cabinet ministers: 36% private school and 59% Oxbridge; newspaper columnists: 43% private school and 47% Oxbridge. We get the picture – these are the same people, the same privately-educated 7% who make it into the Oxford and Cambridge 1%, and then go on to run the country.
The state- vs. independently-educated Oxbridge discrepancy can be chalked up to quality of teaching and support, pushiness of parents, individual expectations, the image of Oxbridge – anything you want, really, and we have no shortage of reasons. What’s really of note is the relatively small statistical difference graduating Oxbridge without a private school background appears to make on the likelihood of reaching these high-flying positions.
Many will tell you that there are still whiffs of elitism within the student body at Oxford and Cambridge, mostly clinging to certain secret societies and social cliques, but overall they are no longer the seething beds of nepotism they once were. It’s only in the most competitive fields of these most competitive institutions that we see the true importance of ‘who you know’ – banking, law and politics, the pillars of ‘the establishment’.
Sitting on his bed one evening last term, a friend captured for me the frustration and fruitlessness which, at times, is chasing success in these fields for an unconnected Oxbridge student: “To get the job when you graduate, you have to do an internship in second year, but to have any chance at an internship in second year, you need to have done something in first year – and to get something in first year? You need to know someone.”
The fees of many private schools dictate that the parents of most of their students will be very successful in one field or another. Scholarships are sparse and even if this was not the case, the concentration of private schools and independent grammars in certain parts of the country would mean that opportunities were still concentrated on a select few – namely those living in the south east of England. If the connections of these students’ successful parents prove inadequate, then the ‘old boys’ and ‘old girls’ directories kept by many independent schools could be of help – the Old Etonian Association has an online database of contact details for alumni which can be accessed by any past student with a login.
It would be unfair and incorrect to imply that privately-educated students do not work extremely hard to win an offer to study at Oxbridge, and it would be equally so to suggest these privately-educated Oxbridge students do not work just as hard to achieve a high class of degree and succeed in other, non-academic areas of student life. Students who are offered internships – and later, graduate jobs – earn them, and their success should be commended, not criticised.
Not all private school students are flush with contacts, and not all state school students are devoid of them, but the general trend, highlighted by Milburn’s report, is undeniable. And if internships and work experience are as important as we are led to believe, then the superior financial position in which many privately-educated, upper and middle class students find themselves has an additional impact – after all, London-based unpaid internships are an Oxbridge graduate’s bread-and-butter, but are entirely unrealistic for less affluent students.
This is clearly a complex problem, and however it’s tackled (if it’s tackled at all), the aim should never be to diminish the opportunities or achievements of private school students, but instead to improve the possibilities for anyone who does not have the luxury of convenient connections and a well-padded bank account.