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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Oli Scarff / Getty Images

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

Corrections Appended January 8 and 10, 2013

In a study decorated with leather-bound books and busts of ancient Greek scholars, an 18-year-old British student is getting an assignment: a 2,000-word essay on democracy and Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” “I want you to get argumentative,” says her teacher, glancing over his spectacles. “Next week we’ll pick up the theme of democracy with Plato.”

Dressed in jeans, bangles and a leather jacket, the student, Jane Odera, appears at home with these highbrow challenges. Yet just five years ago, she was living with her mother in social housing and considering dropping out of school to become a hairdresser. Now, she’s applying to one of the most prestigious universities in the world: Cambridge.

(MORE: Can Oxford and Cambridge Shed Their Elitist Images by Admitting More Poor Students?)

Her teacher, Oxford professor Peter Claus, travels to Odera’s London public school, Brooke House Sixth Form (BSix), once a week as part of a program he founded in 2008 called Pem-Brooke. The initiative, partly funded by Pembroke College, Oxford, is aiming to help disadvantaged students get into the country’s two most storied universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

The challenge for such students is immense. Pupils from private schools have been a significant presence at Oxford and Cambridge, known collectively as Oxbridge, for decades, despite the fact that only 7% of British students attend them. (The point is often made by the universities that despite privately-educated students being in the minority, they make up approximately one-third of the students with high enough grades to apply to Oxbridge — thereby constituting a larger pool of eligible candidates.) In a country with the lowest social mobility in the Western world according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Oxford and Cambridge rank last among large research-intensive U.K. universities in terms of students drawn from public schools. In 2010–11, just 2.5% of Oxford students and 3.1% of Cambridge students came from low-participation neighborhoods, and both universities scored below admission benchmarks calculated by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, a non-governmental body, for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, admitting around 10% from that group.

(MORE: Britain’s Universities: Funding Excellence)

That matters because those left behind are less likely to join the ranks of Britain’s elites. Over 30% of leading professionals in the U.K., including almost 80% of the judiciary, 47% of highflyers in financial services and 41% of top journalists attended Oxbridge, according to recent studies by the Sutton Trust, a U.K. educational charity. Every university-educated Prime Minister since 1937 has walked one of the two universities’ halls save Gordon Brown. (Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, both attended top private schools and then Oxbridge, as did approximately two-thirds of their Cabinet.) This isn’t just bad news for the clever, underprivileged students who don’t attend Oxbridge — it’s bad news for Britain, which draws its elites from an artificially narrow pool that is largely cut off from the country at large.

Still, the Pem-Brooke program is a sign of how change may finally be coming to these ancient institutions. Cambridge and Oxford have in recent years ramped up their existing efforts, which got underway over a decade ago, to actively seek out underprivileged students. Oxford now spends $4 million a year on student outreach, up from $1.6 million in 2006–07. While some of that money is still used to recruit from posh private schools, much is spent on school visits and teacher-training sessions aimed at encouraging poor and minority students to apply to the university. In 2010, Oxford also launched a summer school, which gives some 500 academically talented, state-school students a chance to experience studying at Oxford for a week. (Previously, Oxford hosted summer schools for unprivileged students set up and funded by the nonprofit Sutton Trust starting in the late 1990s. Cambridge continues to run and largely fund a Sutton Trust summer school program.) In addition, the university admissions office highly recommends to tutors that qualified students from poor areas be invited for interviews. And it has set a target of increasing the number of undergrads from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas from 6.1% to 9% by 2016–17.

Much of this is due to pressure from outside. In 2010, a Member of Parliament from the left-leaning Labour Party, David Lammy, launched a campaign to encourage diversity at Oxbridge after examining admissions data obtained via freedom-of-information requests. He found that almost 90% of the student body at both universities is drawn from the upper and middle classes, that Oxford accepted only one British black Caribbean undergraduate who declared his or her ethnicity in 2009, and that in 2008 and 2009, Oxford held 21% of its outreach events at private schools, including 12 at Kate Middleton’s school, Marlborough College, and nine at Prince William’s alma mater, Eton College. (State school students were invited.) Lammy’s exposé, which received a flurry of press attention, led Cameron to describe the situation at Oxbridge as “disgraceful.” (His remarks, prefaced by the statement: “I saw figures the other day that showed that only one black person went to Oxford last year,” came under criticism from Oxford and others as inaccurate. One British black Caribbean undergraduate was accepted that year, out of the 27 black undergraduates admitted from the U.K. Cameron’s office responded by noting that the Prime Minister was making a “wider point” about “black and minority ethnic groups” at “universities like Oxford.”)

Around the same time, the government began a push to speed change at Oxbridge. In February 2012, Liberal Democrats in the U.K. coalition government pushed through the appointment of a new head of the independent public body charged with safeguarding fair access to higher education, the Office for Fair Access, Les Ebdon, who has indicated his intention to negotiate “challenging” diversity targets with English universities, in exchange for allowing them to charge up to $14,500 per year in tuition fees.

All told, these efforts seem to be having an effect. Last year, Oxford announced that it accepted a record number of state-school applicants, 57.7%, for the incoming 2011 class. In September 2012, Cambridge announced that it admitted 63.3% state-school students for 2012–13, up from 58% the year before.

Yet critics say while both universities are on the right path, the problem is far from solved. According to the Sutton Trust, about 90% of the “public-school students” accepted by Oxbridge were plucked from schools with above average levels of attainment, including selective grammar schools akin to New York’s famed Bronx High School of Science. And within the universities’ constituent undergraduate colleges — which oversee admissions individually — there are deep inconsistencies in efforts to track down bright underprivileged undergraduates. “There has been progress — colleges like Mansfield at Oxford and King’s at Cambridge are really going out of their way to recruit the best and the brightest wherever they are. But the lion’s share of colleges simply aren’t pulling their weight,” says Lammy. “When you look at the figures across schools, across ethnicity, across region, it’s deeply worrying.”

Pembroke is one college beginning to pull its weight, thanks to the efforts of Professor Claus and others at Pembroke to make equality of opportunity a priority. In September, the college announced a 10-year strategy for outreach to underprivileged students, including the expansion of the Pem-Brooke program to schools in the northwest of England.

But even at Pembroke, these efforts are relatively recent. Until 2008, the college confined itself to the traditional “outreach” activities, opening its halls to potential applicants who cared to come and hosting visiting schoolchildren. This meant, in essence, that the college was preaching to the converted. “Activities that try and get people who were perhaps not thinking about Oxford,” says Mark Fricker, academic director of Pembroke. “Up until the Pem-Brooke scheme [in 2008], our activities in those areas were pretty slim.”

Sitting in Pembroke’s elegant faculty room, Claus, whose warm demeanor belies the stereotype of the aloof Oxford academic, reflects on why Britain’s two oldest universities have come so late to the game. It’s the pressure to publish that keeps academics from throwing themselves into outreach work, he says, balancing a cup of tea. But his own underprivileged background — he came to his history professorship via Ruskin College, an adult-education institution in Oxford — means he’s taken a special interest. “I have to do it,” he says.

(MORE: A Perfect Day … in Oxford)

The centerpiece of the Pem-Brooke project in Hackney, one of the roughest parts of London, is a room similar to an Oxford professor’s study, built right in the heart of BSix. Called the Red Room, it’s meant to get poor students used to the sort of surroundings they might encounter at an Oxbridge admission interview — during which a university academic invites a prospective undergrad into her study, hands him a cup of tea and ruthlessly probes the limits of his intelligence. When the replica professor’s room first hit the papers in March, some in the press called it a gimmick. But Claus says creating an elevating space in the school — a modern building next to a concrete tower block — was crucial. “We wanted to get away from education as training,” he says, referencing the common idea that poor students would be better off learning to be car mechanics or carpenters. “Education is for life.”

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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
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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.