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Oxbridge, privilege and the perpetuation of unhelpful stereotypes

by onkar

King's College cattle

King’s College cattle
King’s College, Cambridge. ‘None of the friends I made at King’s were of any help in my later life, most of them were from similar [working-class] backgrounds to me, and had worked hard to get there,’ writes Harry Galbraith. Photograph: Andrew
Carol Cadwalladr argues that electing Oxbridge graduates does not guarantee we get the most able politicians because of a selection process that is biased towards a privately educated elite (Whatever the party, our political elite is an Oxbridge club, 25 August). She is implying that we need the most academically successful to rule us. Criteria for access to higher education focus mainly on academic ability and do not usually require evidence of good communication skills, empathy, openness, holding principled beliefs, etc. These latter skills are usually honed by life experience after education and in particular by the experience of managing others in wider society. So those going straight from double-firsts to parliamentary research or special adviserships don’t get the chance to develop the skills I would consider essential in the people who lead us.
Mark Richardson
• Congratulations for publishing Carole Cadwalladr’s excellent piece admitting that an out-of-touch Oxbridge, private-school elite runs our country. I have a suggestion to start making parliament more representative. Anyone wanting to be an MP should have to have been “ordinarily resident” (live and work) in the constituency they wish to represent for at least five years before the date of the election, or “ordinarily resident” in the constituency for at least 10 years at some earlier stage. Those attending boarding schools, such as Eton, would count as ordinarily resident at school. At a stroke our parliamentarians would not be so dominated by Oxbridge and the private schools and would be more representative of the communities they are supposed to speak for.
Adam Rule
North Shields, North Tyneside

• It may be easy to imagine a “homogeneity of experience, of thinking, of networks, of power and of influence” when you simply focus on a handful of political party leaders and City-based professions. In fact, Oxford graduates working in education, health and social care (our top undergraduate career destinations) outnumber those in law, politics and finance by a significant margin. What Oxford graduates do have in common is academic ability and a capacity for independent thought. We are proud of the diverse contributions they are all making to British society.


Academic attainment at school level remains one of the biggest challenges to tackling the under-representation of different social groups at universities (not just Oxford). We do everything we can to identify, encourage and admit bright students from all backgrounds, but that task is made harder by a continued focus on narrow and unrepresentative stereotypes, as perpetuated by your article.
Dr Samina Khan
Director of undergraduate admissions and outreach, Oxford University

• The public school bias in Oxbridge admissions is a national scandal. Colleges clearly do not make sufficient allowance for the advantages available to these pupils. They even maintain that it would be unfair to a pupil at, say, Westminster or Winchester with A*AA to refuse him/her a place, in favour of a pupil at Ms Cadwalladr’s Radyr comp with AAA, as though a few marks in a single subject were a sufficient criterion for determining a young person’s life chances.

The dons must also be aware on which side their bread is buttered. There are no aggregate figures for donations and legacies by members of colleges, but research by the Higher Education Policy Unit some years ago put the average annual philanthropic income of the Oxbridge colleges for 2004-07 at a minimum of £120m. Donations on such a scale create an incentive to admit students from wealthy families: in effect, an interest in maintaining admission criteria that favour the public schools. A college that admitted 90%, rather than 60%, of its undergraduates from state schools would probably lose several million a year in donations in the long run.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done without government intervention. Under the Higher Education Act 2004, admissions are a matter of academic freedom. If Mr Cameron is serious about reducing obstacles to social mobility, he should amend the act to enable the director of the Office for Fair Access to require the universities and colleges to do what is necessary to achieve fairness in admissions, including taking due account of “contextual information” about applicants.
David Pole


• What Carole Cadwalladr had to say about the privileged alumni of Oxbridge may be true, but for students from working-class backgrounds such as myself, Cambridge was “just about education”. None of the friends I made at King’s were of any help in my later life, most of them were from similar backgrounds to me, and had worked hard to get there. What did make all the difference in my life after Cambridge was what I had gained from the opportunity to study history on a one-to-one basis with outstanding teachers such as John Dunn and Gillian Sutherland. They changed my life, not any influence gained from just having been there. They taught me to think. There were, and are, many students from very ordinary backgrounds at Oxbridge, and the efforts they make to gain admission, and their experiences while there, are what will make a difference to their lives, not some sort of old-school-tie association.

To quote the percentage of Oxbridge graduates in high places in law and journalism without checking on where their lives started is to make the sort of assumption that would have been heavily criticised by my tutors.

Thank you Cambridge for enriching my life.
Harry Galbraith
Peel, Isle of Man

• An interesting additional statistic to Carol Cadwalladr’s article – 100% of the journalists in the following day’s Journal section (26 August) were in the Oxbridge club.
Gavin Hills-Jones

• Carole Cadwalladr quotes Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal that Labour should fund people on low incomes to become MPs. Here’s a small practical suggestion: if the Labour party could run a scheme together with constituency parties to select would-be interns from non-elite backgrounds, I hope that other London-based members, like me, would be willing to provide accommodation and maybe board for three months over the summer, to make it possible for a wider range of people to gain experience of how Westminster works. A small step towards showing that we are a movement, not just a party.
Carolyn Hayman

• Carol Cadwalladr is mostly wrong. Oxford and Cambridge universities faculty or students are not the enemy. Both institutions are world ranking for research and continue to provide educational programmes and nurturing environments that produce thinkers, radicals, eccentrics and, yes, leaders in equal measure. Oxbridge has always aroused passionate opposition from egalitarians and inverted snobs. But when pressed, such opponents would change nothing about those places – preferring to argue that they must be more open. I’m reminded of the visitor from Harvard who, on visiting an Oxford college, asked how the lawns are made to look so beautiful. To which the groundsman answered: simple, really – sow, water, mow and repeat for 500 years. Access and inclusion are rising up the Oxbridge agenda, and will take a while to germinate, but probably not half a millennium.

All we are left with then is a rant about a system and, more particularly, a course that produces not, as Cadwalladr would have it, a homogeneous power elite but, as one of her journalist colleagues, Hugo Young, has observed, “everything from Monday Club Fascists to revolutionary Marxists, plus every shade of opinion in between”.
Dr Geoffrey Elliott
Professor of post-compulsory education, University of Worcester, and Hertford College, Oxford, 1971-72


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