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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