Oxbridge obstructs meritocracy. It has to change

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Saying Oxbridge is classist is like saying water is wet, the sun is hot and Donald Trump’s behaviour is questionable. It seems so obvious it doesn’t bear mentioning. Last year, 44.3% of Oxford undergrad admissions were from private schools. Compare that to the national average, which saw 88.9% of university students educated in the state sector. This glaring disparity hardly comes as a surprise, indeed it is an inherent part of British university culture. Of course we’ve made a few token attempts to combat it – Cambridge now has fewer private school entries then universities like Bristol, Durham and St Andrews – but in many ways we have come to accept Oxbridge as it is. It remains a sacrosanct example of an ongoing social hierarchy.

That narrative is as problematic as it is self-perpetuating. We see Oxford and Cambridge as the elite bastion of a de-facto aristocracy and so we cement them as such. Almost as problematic, though, are the procedures that hold this narrative in place. Oxbridge is not biased against state school students because admissions tutors are classist or because quotas are not high enough. Oxbridge is biased against state school students because the application process itself works against them.

Students don’t apply to Oxford and Cambridge like they apply to other Russel Group universities, such as Exeter, St Andrews or Durham. Oxbridge has its own application process and its own demands. Oxbridge hopefuls have to finish their applications by the 15 October, several months before everyone else. On top of that they must sit and pass an additional subject-specific exam. Then come interviews, the nature of which vary depending on subject or college. In short, the Oxbridge application process makes you do more stuff more quickly than everyone else.

Maybe that’s fair enough. The domineering narrative may argue that this is necessary preparation. Oxbridge, it might claim, offers you an education leagues above anything else in the country. It is possessed of a distinct, rigorous intensity that few can match. The process is different because an Oxbridge education is itself different, because a degree from Cambridge or Oxford is a uniquely challenging thing to undertake.  

Perhaps that is true. It is hard to judge the difficulty of an Oxbridge degree without taking one. But it is also awfully easy to mythologise. It is easy to exaggerate, to tell stories and to use those stories to hide from more pernicious truths. A gruelling application process might well be preparatory but, more importantly, it’s exclusionary. An early deadline means there’s a distinction between a standard university application and an Oxbridge application. You have to tailor your application, your personal statement, your references and your timings to Oxford or Cambridge themselves. Each specific test comes with specific demands and specific criteria.

The same applies to early interviews. The idea of Oxbridge being so separate and elite means that students who make it to the interview stage have a particular bearing, a particular way of seeing the world, of holding discourse and presenting their ideas. If they know how to prepare for this in advance, they have a huge advantage.

As someone who tried (and failed) to apply, I have experienced the constant feeling that you are trying to live up to a specific set of unclear expectations. There is a sense of clueless uncertainty; that you are on your own, that the standards aren’t always obvious and that the odds are very much stacked against you. Private school kids have an edge when it comes to Oxbridge because they benefit from smaller class sizes and better resources. They have links, connections and the kind of cultural capital to which state school kids don’t always have access. That’s a given. But they also benefit from that fact that Oxford and Cambridge have manufactured a process that gives private sector education the edge.

The bias exists, at least in part, because a private school can hire the staff, muster the experience and develop the expertise needed to produce an Oxbridge university statement, to prepare a student for an Oxbridge interview and to get them ready for an Oxbridge-style exam. Whilst the idea of an exam separate to A-Levels might send waves of baffled anxiety through the staff of a state sixth form, a private school can rest easy knowing that it can provide a student with everything they need. More than just mock papers, they can provide an expert atmosphere in which to prepare as well as staff who know what to look for and how to mark papers bearing no resemblance to the national curriculum. A specific application process means specific demands – specific demands that only private schools can reasonably meet.

State school students, meanwhile, are left in the dark. They are at the mercy of sixth form departments which are not equipped with the means of dealing with the demands of a uniquely arbitrary process.

So eliminate this practical distinction. Make their application process the same as everywhere else and it will help level the playing field. Open Oxbridge up to people who might never have applied at all. The mythology will persist and Oxbridge will never cease to be Oxbridge, but the mechanisms that help reinforce and maintain the distinction between Oxford, Cambridge and everywhere else will be partially removed.

On an even deeper level, the uniquely gruelling Oxbridge application process should be removed because it enforces a sense of artificial prestige. That Oxford and Cambridge are the two oldest universities in the country should not be enough to make them the best. The quality of their education should. A distinct application process does nothing more than manufacture the sense that Oxford and Cambridge are, by warrant of being Oxford and Cambridge, better than everyone else. It’s symptomatic of an academic culture that values tradition and prestige over innovation and development. It’s small-c conservatism on a societal scale. It helps no one.

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