In light of a recent Guardian article, which criticises Oxford and Cambridge’s low intake of state school pupils, it is easy to begin shouting about how Oxford is a disgraceful elitist institution that enables the rich/poor divide,  forcing the have-nots to have less and the haves to have more, leading to oppression of minorities and a fascistic state.

Some of this is partly true. Oxford is an elitist institution in that it is a meritocracy. It accepts applicants with the highest grades, best interview skills and those who are the best at expressing themselves in academic situations. It caters for people with a specific interest in immersing themselves fully in their chosen subject for the years of their degree, people who want to live and breathe the dust that rises off the bookshelves at 5am, as they feverishly haunt the libraries. These qualities are often present in well-educated people, and unfortunately, the best education comes from private schools.

Privilege is often an elephant in the room. The privileged try to rationalise their position by saying “I worked hard for my rewards, you cannot take my achievements away from me!” and while that may be true to an extent, the element of luck is also an extremely big factor. Without trying to generalise; parents who are struggling to pay bills are more likely to prioritise basic things needed for survival rather than luxuries, like private education, tutors and books.

This leads to a disparity in primary and secondary education quality from person-to-person and this in turn ends up with students having different aspirations and priorities. A child who has been at a highly academic private school will have been told from the moment they arrive that they are 100% capable of A*s and Oxbridge, and a dedicated team of teachers, who are passionate about their work will do everything in their power to help them obtain their goals. A child at an underfunded state school may be told that they can hope for Ds, Cs and Bs at best and they may end up not considering going to any university, let alone Oxbridge.

This system cannot be described as fair. It is biased in favour of people with the time and money available to invest in their child’s education and prevents a lot of disadvantaged children from having the option of going down an academic route. However, I would argue that we cannot blame Oxbridge for this. Oxbridge selects the candidates it wants, and many (though not all) of these candidates are from privileged backgrounds. What needs to change is the quality of education available to people with less money. Why should a good education be a luxury?

What should not change is Oxbridge’s academic requirements. Don’t force them to take more state school pupils ONLY for the sake of increasing diversity, instead invest more money in the state school system to improve education universally.

Make university, and Oxbridge, a viable option for all, but do not discriminate against applicants based on their backgrounds.

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This article has 8 comments

  1. But putting more money into the education system is hardly an easy solution in a time of economic austerity, and in the meantime, many students don’t attain a place at Oxford who are just as intelligent and hardworking as those from a more privileged background. Surely lowering the grade boundaries for students who work in larger classes and who may have suffered educational and economic disadvantage is only levelling the playing field, rather than providing them with an advantage?

    • Lowering the grade boundaries would not be fair at all. Many degree subjects build on A level knowledge. If a Maths applicant can only achieve a B in A level Maths, Oxford would not be “levelling the playing field” by accepting them – they would be be disadvantaging that student because they would come to Oxford and be miles behind their peers. It would also be unfair to an applicant who did achieve the necessary grades and was denied a place in favour of a student who will ultimately not be in a position to make the most of that place. Oxford should not lower its standards as this would disadvantage students who got in with lower grades, and make it more difficult for the university to give every student the best education as there would be a very wide range of ability when Oxford is used to teaching at one level and one level only – this should not change because expecting excellence is what makes Oxford so successful.

      I came from a state school which rarely sent anyone to Oxford, and although it might have been harder than it would have been if I had been given a better school education, that was never Oxford’s fault and I never for a moment expected them to make up for that – the flaw is at the secondary education level and this is where it needs to be addressed. Expecting Oxford to address it is simply illogical – Oxford sets one universal standard of entry for each subject it offers: that is equality at a university level. Equality at a secondary school level would look like every school being equally able to support students in attaining those grades – THIS is what levelling the playing field would look like. Oxford does a massive amount of outreach and as a recipient of their access schemes I can attest to how much work they put into them and how encouraging it is for state school students. Also, Oxford DO take contextual data into account when considering applicants – in order to get in, though, you have to meet the entry requirements and I don’t think this is an unreasonable request. Our secondary school system is unequal and it does disadvantage state school applicants to an extent, but the remedy must be at a secondary school level – trying to make Oxford change its entry requirements would be a knee-jerk reaction which ignores the root of the problem.

  2. Likewise, I would challenge the idea that Oxford is being compelled to take state school pupils ‘ONLY for the sake of increasing diversity’. Arguably taking educational disadvantage into account in your selection criteria is a way of attracting some of the country’s best minds and make the university a truly meritocratic environment. A private school candidate with an A* AA grade may in fact have a lower IQ than a person from an underperforming school who still managed to achieve 3Bs, and the 3Bs candidate might outperform the private school candidate if they were given access to an Oxford education.

    • Reply to Hannah Foxton: once Oxford starts discriminating in favour of pupils from large classes it would have to consider other equally deserving criteria including OFSTED performance, standard of teaching, number of pupils in receipt of free school meals, proportion of class with English as a second language, etc. There may be an argument for setting a higher bar for those from academically selective schools (both state and independent).

      • Anoymous Correction

        Oxford already does utilise such statistics.

        The admissions office also attempts to achieve 50% parity between UK state and private school students.

        However, what slightly overzealous Union debaters (who over utilises phrases such as “the Left” to label all arguments he disagrees with regardless of whether they fit that category or not), ignores is that only about 7% of students attend private schools in the UK, which increases to around 14% for the last two years. This means that private school students are overrepresented in Oxford on most undergraduate courses by a factor of, at most, 7.

        Since Oxford has already accepted the need for quotas, those of us, who may indeed find ourselves on the “right”, heaven forbid, argue they should implement them in a manner proportional to a representative make up of the country. That is all.

      • I agree- in some cases there is little difference between the standard of education received at a grammar school in an affluent area and an independent school. Oxbridge colleges should try and take all these factors into account when considering an applicant.

  3. Reply to Simon Wendle: I agree- in some cases there is little difference between the standard of education received at a grammar school in an affluent area and an independent school. Oxbridge colleges should try and take all these factors into account when considering an applicant.

  4. Pingback: THE CASE FOR CONTEXTUAL OFFERS – existentialcrisis

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