As a recent Cambridge graduate, I am full of praise for the university, and in particular, the college I attended. I loved my time there – I made amazing friends, studied in the most beautiful place and developed academically and personally to a great extent. But it was immediately apparent (at least to me) that most people at Cambridge had similar social backgrounds. I attended a private school, and amongst my peers who did not, many went to grammar schools or top performing state comprehensives in areas of the country where house prices are the equivalent of a normal house plus private school fees for about ten children.
The main difference between me and some of my peers was that while our family backgrounds were similar, the version of society that we had seen growing up was radically different. I grew up in Rochdale, regularly touted as one of the worst places to live in the UK, and listed as one of the Local Authorities from where very few pupils will go to Oxbridge in the Sutton Trust’s recent report. My dad is a GP and my mum currently teaches young adults who have failed their GCSEs repeatedly. Whilst I was largely sheltered from the effects of the deprivation around me, I still saw it all the time, encountered situations that were caused by it and heard a lot about the damage it can do through my parents.
But when I got to Cambridge, I saw none of that deprivation, and I quickly realised that many people around me did not have a proper grasp on what poverty or societal inequality really looked like. Why? Because they had grown up in areas of such affluence that the things I had seen growing up never really encroached upon their daily lives.
And so naturally, as a bubble of people who have largely grown up in a bubble, the Cambridge microcosm has its disturbing elements. The wild excess of arrogant public schoolboys, though thoroughly scrutinised and increasingly frowned upon while I was there, was certainly a problem. But more disturbing than this were the numbers of young people who liked to call themselves working class without being so in the slightest. It is not a stereotype to talk about young people from the Cotswolds or North London who happened to go to a state school (but nevertheless lived in houses worth a couple of million) donning extremely expensive adidas tracksuits and talking about their humble origins.
But while these people would brag about being from a state school and having managed to get to Oxbridge, in the same breath they would demonise as idiots all those who had voted for brexit. I distinctly remember an occasion when one of those same people, watching a reality TV programme featuring undoubtedly more working class people than we were, said ‘I know this is bad, but I can’t believe these people have the same vote as me.’
Comments like that are nothing short of disgusting. But I outline all this not to condemn Oxbridge to a cesspit of irredeemable elitism, but to try to show that the problem we are dealing with is much bigger than the universities themselves. Because Oxbridge as it exists now is the product of an education system and societal demographics that are undoubtedly segregated along the lines of class. Because although I grew up in a deprived area, my parents chose to remove me from the deprivation and send me to a private school. My parents with books readily available in the house, and their continual support (financial and otherwise) of my extracurricular activities. They both have degrees of their own. They did what they thought was best by me and my brother, but to make me and my brother better off, they sent us both down an educational channel that only further entrenches privilege in society.
I will never be ungrateful or annoyed at my parents for the choice they made, but they know as well as I do the implications that it has. A segregated education system fails so many children on multiple levels. And with regards to Oxbridge admissions, this failure is largely because children and many of their teachers have so little idea of what going to Oxbridge might entail, or just what the application process is like, that both institutions seem impenetrable.
My private school was very small, and very rarely sent pupils to Oxbridge. While well-meaning, it got so many things wrong about what an Oxbridge interview is actually like, and what the place itself can offer. They constantly told me that getting in would be unlikely, and a lot of their advice (‘every pupil you’re competing against will have already read all of Shakespeare! Why haven’t you?’) meant I went into the interview feeling very shaky and already as though I was worse than everyone else. I felt so terrified that I would be inferior to everyone around me before starting and was incredibly surprised to find that I performed well when I got there, not because I had been frightened into reading Middlemarch, but because they wanted students who were not afraid to think creatively, and for themselves.
If my private school got it so wrong, and thought that entry to Oxbridge is all about what you know rather than how much you are prepared to think, then imagine the difficulty of applying to Oxbridge from a school where no-one has ever gone before and where few people go to university at all.
And while Oxbridge may seem to have an issue in making its admissions process explicitly clear, the fundamental problem rests in the divides that exist in society at large. We cannot go pointing the finger at individual admissions tutors, who are often selecting people on the basis of who they think will cope best with the rigours of the course. Of course some of this selection is down to unconscious biases, but a huge part of this inequality in admissions is because there is huge inequality in our education system, right down to the earliest years. Oxbridge is a convenient symbol, two ancient, unrepresentative institutions which can easily be used to flag up problems in our society. But we have to work harder than simply reforming Oxbridge. We have to reform the very roots of our education system, and this may mean reforming more than just who goes to what school. It may mean scrutinising our society, and acknowledging that where people live, how much their house is worth, even how much air pollution someone is exposed to – these are all factors which drive division in society and the ultimately symbolic problem of Oxbridge.