Britain’s Class Divide: Can Oxbridge Solve Its Privilege Problem?

In a country with the lowest social mobility in the Western world, Oxford and Cambridge rank last among large research-intensive U.K. universities in terms of students drawn from public schools. How will that change?

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Students walk under the Bridge of Sighs along New College Lane in Oxford, England, on March, 22, 2012

The Red Room is certainly different for Odera, Claus’ student, who hopes to study politics at Cambridge. Odera grew up in public housing (known in Britain as a council estate) with her single mother, who left Nigeria in the 1970s and worked three jobs to support her family. They had to share a bedroom, which wasn’t ideal. “As I got older, I thought, What is she doing next to me?” says Odera. Her schooling has been patchy. As a 5-year-old, she often sat by herself in class because she already understood the teacher’s lesson. “Instead of giving me stuff to do that was challenging, they’d leave me out.” In order to attend a good middle school, she arose at 5:30 every morning for a two-hour bus trip across London (she couldn’t afford the train). When she finally made it to a selective public school for bright pupils at age 14, Odera felt like even more of an outsider. “I could count on one hand the number of people who were black in my whole year,” she says. “It was posh. And I just felt like the estate girl, really.”

Odera felt so alienated that she stopped going to school on most days. She considered dropping out and taking a job in hair and beauty. Yet when it came to exams, she still shone, scoring top grades on her General Certificates of Secondary Education — the subject tests British students take at age 16. Still she was dogged by problems, including depression that went undiagnosed until this year. After switching schools again, she left education altogether. Then, she saw BSix while driving in Hackney. She applied and was chosen for Claus’ program. There, Odera has been able to seriously pursue her academics, including her interest in politics. “My family is Nigerian, and my mom was directly affected by the civil war in Nigeria,” she says. “I wondered, Why did Britain support Nigeria and not Biafra? Just all sorts of questions like that came up in my head, and I thought, I want to be a part of this.”

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Pem-Brooke has already helped three Hackney students get into Oxbridge, a first for BSix, while increasing the number of Hackney students getting into other top British universities by over 500% in the past three years. The model has also drawn in 16 other universities to take over the teaching of various subjects to bright students. Its planned hub in the northwest will bring the total of young people it helps to 90 per year. Such resource-intensive aid has its limits, however — no matter how many students the program takes in, it will only affect a relatively small number.

And it is not only the scale of the task that stands in the way of diversifying Oxbridge. In late February, the government’s new diversity czar, Ebdon, suggested that the government might withhold some funding for universities that fail to admit more poor students. The comment sparked a middle-class firestorm. The Sunday Times splashed the headline “Will This Man Stop Your Child Going to a Top University?” across an unflattering picture of Ebdon superimposed over an idyllic Cambridge college. In the photo, Ebdon holds a sign reading, “Please Keep Out — Unless from a Disadvantaged Group, as Approved by the Dept. Social Engineering.” Many of the country’s top universities, including Cambridge, later set ambitious targets for the proportion of admitted state-school students. In response, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), a network of 252 elite British private schools, threatened a boycott of those universities. The head of HMC, Christopher Ray, accused the government of taking a page out of Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House, where in the satirical story “Harrison Bergeron,” citizens are all “of equal strength, intelligence and beauty” by 2081, thanks to the handicapper general, who makes the beautiful wear masks and intelligent people don deafening earphones. “I do wonder who is applying for the post of U.K. handicapper general at the moment,” Ray mused.

Some education experts, however, say this view ignores the advantages conferred by private schooling. “People from state schools, with the same A-levels, do better than people from private schools when they get to university,” says Francis Green, a professor at the Institute of Education, University of London. “Study after study [in peer-reviewed journals] has been finding that that’s the case.” Green says the phenomenon makes sense. “Someone of moderate ability, who is at a private school, gets very well taught, pressured by parents and school teachers alike and get A-levels above their ability level. They then don’t do as well when they get to university, and the conditions they face are exactly the same as the equivalent person who’s just come from a state school. If that is true, there is a logical argument for the universities to take the social background, the school background in particular, of applicants into account.” Green, an Oxford graduate with two daughters who attended Cambridge, says the backlash from independent schools against targets is to be expected. “Of course it would be prejudicing their clients, who are the parents of their children.” The response, he says, is obvious. “It’s still the case that the social-class background of people in the top universities is extremely skewed.” Other education experts and officials at Cambridge cite studies that conclude that, in fact, the brightest state school students do not outperform their equally high-performing private-school-educated peers at top universities.

It’s not just head teachers and wealthy parents who object, however. Oxbridge itself has largely stuck to the conviction that changing standards to facilitate social mobility would violate the universities’ core missions. “As institutions charged with education, research and training, our purpose is not to be engines for promoting social justice,” said Alison Richard, the vice chancellor (at the time) of Cambridge in 2008. “Promoting social mobility is not our core mission, which is to provide an outstanding education.”

Critics say Oxford and Cambridge’s focus on admitting the most academically accomplished misses the larger role the universities play in Britain. “All our studies show that Oxford and Cambridge graduates dominate society. They don’t go on to be academics, largely, they go on to do other things. So in effect, it’s a bit of a fallacy,” says Lee Elliot Major, the director of development and policy at the Sutton Trust. Major points out that it doesn’t have to be this way. “The leading universities in the world — the Ivy Leagues — have an incredibly progressive attitude toward this agenda. What they say they’re in is the value-added business — it’s about creating leaders. Oxford and Cambridge see their mission in the world as fundamentally different from those of the Ivy Leagues. I think that’s at the heart of this.”

Lammy points out that taxpayer-funded Oxford and Cambridge have even more of an obligation to address social inequality than their private American counterparts. “In the end, these are public institutions in receipt of serious amounts of public money,” says Lammy. In addition to their regular government funding, Oxford and Cambridge are the only undergraduate universities in the country to receive an extra $11 million to sustain their unique one-on-one teaching system. “If they were private institutions, you could argue they can do whatever the hell they want. But if they take taxpayers’ money, then I do think it’s legitimate to press them on these issues.”

Back at BSix, those involved with the Pem-Brooke project say they want their students to be admitted to top colleges on their own merits, rather than their background. “We don’t want any concessions from anybody,” says Ken Warman, the principal of BSix, who made his own way from poverty to Oxford decades ago. “It’s not a good message for our students. Would you be as confident if you were let in because of where you were from?”

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For Odera, building confidence has been a slow process. “My mum and dad didn’t go to university. It’s a scary thought,” she says. “It’s kind of like, Who am I to apply?” After college, Odera wants to help raise aspirations among young women from poor backgrounds. “I think people don’t work as hard because they think, I’m not going to get there anyway. I felt like that, and it took me a long time to realize that’s not the case because of the support I had,” she says. “I want to give that back.” Eventually, she hopes to become a Member of Parliament. First, however, she needs to finish her application to Cambridge. She worries her childhood troubles may have already compromised her as a candidate. Still, she knows that with her grades, her passion for politics and Claus’ help, there’s a chance. “That’s what I’m trying to hold on to,” she says. “My worry is, is it too late?” It won’t be long until she finds out — Cambridge announces its admissions decisions this month.

This article has been changed. An earlier version stated that Oxford University accepted “only one black Caribbean student” in 2009, when in fact the university accepted one British black Caribbean undergraduate who declared his or her ethnicity when applying to Oxford. The article has also been amended to reflect the context for comments made by British Prime Minister David Cameron on the number of black students at Oxford. It has also been changed to reflect the fact that in 2009 Oxford “held” rather than “targeted” 21% of its outreach events at private schools, and that it draws the majority of its non-private students from public schools with above average levels of attainment, rather than “elite public schools.”  An amendment was made to indicate that Office for Fair Access director Les Ebdon has not imposed but intends to negotiate targets with universities. It has been corrected to indicate that every university-educated Prime Minister save Gordon Brown has attended Oxford or Cambridge since 1937, rather than throughout history. The proportion of Oxbridge graduates in David Cameron’s cabinet has been updated — following the Prime Minister’s September reshuffle, the percentage rose from almost 40% to two-thirds. Percentages on leading Oxbridge graduates have been updated to reflect the latest figures. The article erred in stating that private school students have “dominated” Oxbridge for “centuries.” In the 1970s, according to Cambridge, admissions of state school students ranged from 62% to 68%, sinking down to around 50% in the 1980s. The article has been amended to clarify that although only a small percentage of British students are privately educated, they make up one-third of the students with the requisite qualifications to apply to Oxbridge. The article erred in stating that Oxford and Cambridge “missed government admission targets” for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Rather, the universities scored below “benchmarks” for admission of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds which are calculated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a non-governmental body. The article was amended to clarify the point that Cambridge continues to run Sutton Trust summer schools. The article mistakenly suggested that the current U.K. government had launched an “initiative to reform Oxbridge.” There was no official initiative, but rather a marked push by the government to encourage change. The article referred to Cambridge and Oxford’s efforts “in the past two years” to seek out underprivileged students. In fact, their commitment is far more long-standing — programs to reach out to underprivileged students have been operating at the two universities since at least the mid-1990s. The article erred in suggesting that Cambridge had protested state school targets, and in stating that it had “agreed to” ambitious targets, rather than setting the targets themselves that were then approved by the Office of Fair Access. The article has been amended to clarify that there is debate over whether the ‘school effect’, whereby state school students outperform private school students at university, applies to those at the highest levels of achievement, from which Oxford and Cambridge recruit. The article has been changed to correct the misstatement that a lack of strong candidates from poor backgrounds is not the concern of Oxford and Cambridge. The article has amended the phrase “Oxford and Cambridge’s myopic focus on cherry-picking the most academically accomplished,” to more fairly reflect the universities’ approach.

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21 comments
derekcottrell
derekcottrell

The last survey I saw (can't remember where) stated that its the USA that has the lowest social mobility in the Western world not the UK.  Does the author believe that the situation is any better in the USA with its admiration of the "Ivy League"?, I would imagine its far worse, it certainly is in supposedly "egalitarian" France.

If American journalists wish to become better respected worldwide they need to stop spouting cliches, "Britain's class/divide" etc, It doesn't work if the situation you are describing is even worse in the country that you hail from.  You know, try writing at least one article about Britain without the words, "class divide" or Empire"  Regard it as an exercise in honing your craft.



londonhack
londonhack

I think many of these corrections could have been easily avoided had the writer given the universities the right to reply, a concept familiar with most journalists. If you write something about someone, have the courtesy to let them know first and check your facts. For those accusing the universities of nitpicking, read again. There is a big difference between saying Oxford University accepted “only one black Caribbean student” in 2009, when in fact the university accepted one British black Caribbean undergraduate who declared his or her ethnicity when applying to Oxford. If you cannot understand this fundamental difference, quite frankly you need to go back to school! The difference is big, and it is important. 

One way for Sonia to avoid repeating these mistakes would be to practise reasoning tests, where you read a paragraph of information and then have to choose one of three statements which accurately describes the information in the paragraph. The answer often looks obvious, but it isn't and requires the reader to understand the nuances of language and the different possible interpretations. The irony of all this is that the author attended Oxford and has had a first-class education! But this is how you learn as a journalist and her experience has certainly reminded me of the importance of fact checking and offering the right to reply. I wish her all the best.


jewbird
jewbird

I'm sure the deserving poor who get in to Oxbridge will go on to become the Lords and Ladies of Downton Abbey.

OldDude
OldDude

Is it me or is there a a heavy whiff of Schadenfreude accompanying most of these comments?

Yes, there are errata, but I don't think that any of them substantially change the thrust of the article.

Oxbridge continues to have a privilege bias, and kicks and screams like hell when anyone points this out. 

Far better that they stop nitpicking and address the issues that continue to dog them.

timinsingapore
timinsingapore

The writer certainly has an agenda. Love the errata. Or is it corrigenda? Instances of journalistic incompetence, whatever you call them. Do we deduce from this illuminating article that the editorial standards of Time magazine are going down the toilet in the wake of its economic fortunes? And tell me Sonia, would you say that Harvard and Yale are more accessible than Oxford and Cambridge to the average applicant without much in the way of cash or connections?

FinnMcCann
FinnMcCann

The number of  PPE(Oxon) graduates in Cabinet and in the House of Commons and their undergrad social behaviour implies that the aforementioned graduate course is of the "soft" variety - what is the Pass rate for this SPAD qualification? For me Bullingdon & Oxon'S PPE Grad course with its optional Economics year says more about this allegedly elitist College than it does about its ability to adhere to its Mission Statement. Regrettably elitism doesn't seem to deliver any sense of social responsibility or understanding of moral vaues. Manners still maketh the man/woman. Oh, sorry potential graduates will slip seemlessly into a networked City Job where "brass", "clawss", vulgarity and mysogyny will be valuable assets

metalbucket
metalbucket

This article is amazing - for the wrong reasons. I've never seen a set of corrections so lengthy in a journal of this type. The corrections almost form a new article in themselves. It's an interesting topic. Such a shame it was dashed off without any serious fact checking. Half of these mistakes could have been avoided with just an evening on Google.

UniofOxford
UniofOxford

This highlights an excellent programme that is showing success at getting students from under-represented backgrounds into Oxford. But the Pem-Brooke collaboration is just one of the more than 2,200 outreach activities Oxford undertakes each year to widen its undergraduate intake. The University’s sustained outreach work with schools, teachers and students all over the UK has been going on for more than a decade, and has produced encouraging results. The University’s state school intake was below 50% in the 1990s and is now nearly 60%; around one in ten of Oxford’s undergraduates come from families with incomes below £16,000; and students who attend the University’s flagship UNIQ summer school and apply to Oxford enjoy a success rate of 40% – more than double the overall average for all Oxford applicants.

joshua4
joshua4

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TrueBeliever
TrueBeliever

I was there.

I graduated Harvard Law.

Let them eat cake.

Socialism for the rich, Capitalism for the poor.


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derekcottrell
derekcottrell

@OldDude and the "Ivy League" doesn't have a "privilege bias"?, why is it that American publications are always more eager to dissect European problems than address American ones?....scared of frightening the peasantry? There were riots in California last year, they were hardly touched upon by the American media, riots are a "European problem"

BrendonCarr
BrendonCarr

@metalbucket The author is very attractive and attended both Yale and Oxford. Obviously she doesn't need to be any good.

MonsterMunch
MonsterMunch

@UniofOxford

It is sad to see Oxford responding in this way, rather than accepting that a lot more needs to be done. Oxford seems to treat any suggestion of elitism as a PR challenge rather than a serious social issue which they could help to address. As a former student at Oxford I find this both disappointing and worrying. In my time there, just a few years ago, it was obvious that understandings existed between certain major public schools and certain colleges, and even for certain subjects within certain colleges. There was an expectation that students would continue their privileged upbringing seamlessly into the venerable colleges which accepted their forefathers, and no amount of social change would be allowed to get in their away. I found this expectation deeply repellent, and it plainly meant that many people who lacked the work ethic or intellectual curiosity to make the most of the University were being admitted. I can’t believe this has changed all that much since I was there.

I have sometimes heard it said that Oxford and Cambridge are research institutions and so their main interest should be in creating the world-class researchers of tomorrow. This is nonsense, and if the leaders of those two universities really believe that then they need to get this message through to the tutors. Many of the tutors I came across tried strenuously to dissuade all their students from becoming academics. There simply isn’t enough space in the world for everyone who goes to Oxford or Cambridge to become academic researchers, so clearly the universities serve other functions – very important social functions, in fact. This is supported by the fact that both universities receive significant funding from taxpayers.

Under the present system, these universities not only absolve themselves of a responsibility to address fundamental social problems such as social immobility, they actually help to compound these problems. There will probably always be private schools, and so long as people are able to pour money into ensuring their children meet prescribed academic criteria, then those students lucky enough to benefit from having money poured all over them from birth will always have an unfair advantage over the vast majority who haven’t been so lucky. The disproportionate focus these universities get – in no small part simply because they are old and have nice buildings – means that they become a fast track to lots of leading professions (including politics) which exercise a lot of control over society at large. This means that the people running many important institutions actually have a very limited understanding of what most people experience in life. Personally, I believe this is very bad for society.

The sad thing is, it is within Oxbridge’s power to become powerful forces for good in society. They don’t seem to realise the enormous benefits that can come from showing that people from poor backgrounds can achieve great things if they are given the chance. At the moment if students reach the age of 16/17 and haven't been taught how to jump through various intellectual hoops they are told it’s too late, as if that were the age when intellectual development stops and all potential has been realised.

When we hear that the UK suffers from poor social mobility, Oxford and Cambridge just shrug their shoulders and say it isn’t their problem. They can’t have it both ways. If they are important institutions that deserve extra government funding then they must accept the responsibilities that come with that. They can’t simply expect state schools to solve the manifold social issues they face every day before a child reaches 17, or younger.

I happily donated money to my old college last year, but as long as the university as a whole maintains this narrow-minded, selfish attitude, I can’t really justify to myself doing that again.

DpSRNh
DpSRNh

@UniofOxford The University of Oxford are the only institution in the United Kingdom which still operate an open and undenied selection-by-wealth policy in the form of the College Financial Guarantee for Graduates. Those without proven access to a large volume of liquid capital are not allowed to take up a place. Of the many studentships the University makes available, apparently only one is means tested. The lawfullness of this policy is currently before the courts in the United Kingdom.

OldDude
OldDude

@timinsingapore @OldDude One of the benefits of publishing on the internet is that you are able to correct your mistakes. In my opinion, these corrections are a testament to credibility of both the writer and Time. Many, I believe, have actually gone too far. Do we really, for example, need to distinguish between "held" and "targeted"?

timinsingapore
timinsingapore

@MonsterMunch @UniofOxford Obviously you haven't been speaking to the Oxford academics I know, who complain that not enough of the good candidates from state schools apply in the first place. The elitist notion of Oxford and Cambridge is perpetuated partly by inverse snobbery or defeatism on the part of many secondary school teachers, who are the people who really determine who goes to what university. I don't blame Oxford and Cambridge for not lowering standards in the interests of social engineering. That would just devalue the education they offer to the detriment of everyone who gets in, including the supposed beneficiaries of such efforts.

FinnMcCann
FinnMcCann

@MonsterMunch @UniofOxford; Why does Oxford admissions criteria not include the financial,social and academic criteria required to gain membership of its "elitist" Bullingdon Association? Membership of this club very much matches the criteria. So succinctly outlined by you, above.