When I hear the word Oxbridge, the next words that come to mind are privilege and elitism. Oxford and Cambridge have a longstanding history of exclusivity, being heavily populated by white, privately educated students, which gives these institutions an inescapable, damaged legacy.
Over the years, there has been increasing pressure on Oxford and Cambridge to widen access. Oxford were heavily criticised last year after statistics were released showing one in four Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British student in the years 2015-2017. Progress is painfully slow. Their feeble attempts to leave behind their reputation of being dominated by white, middle class students from wealthy families in fact only highlight how deeply embedded elitism is within the Oxbridge tradition. The disproportion in the selection of students is still incredibly prominent: the Sutton Trust recently revealed that 8 private schools send as many students to Oxford and Cambridge as 2894 other schools and colleges put together.
The latest proposal I’ve read attempting to solve Oxbridge’s admissions problem was outlined in a Guardian article suggesting that Oxford and Cambridge should establish colleges specifically for disadvantaged students. Importantly, this would increase the number of places for students from areas or schools where there isn’t a tradition of attending these universities.
But while the idea behind this radical policy is important, this reform would in fact perpetuate the class divisions which exist within Oxbridge culture. Putting disadvantaged students into a separate college is horribly akin to placing them into a category – and unavoidably, this category would be ‘disadvantaged’. This categorisation, as part of the college system, reinforces the idea that cultural and economic superiority is rife at these institutions; it gives the impression that disadvantaged students do not fit the Oxbridge image. This is already a reason why state school students are less likely to apply to Oxbridge than students from private schools because of doubt that they’re good enough or for fear that they wouldn’t fit in. Diversity requires inclusion, but this system would look like segregation.
Of course, there are individual successes: 41 students from a state sixth form in East London received offers from Oxford and Cambridge this year. But again, this ‘success’ story is flawed because this sixth form is selective. This fact works to elevate Oxford and Cambridge, giving the appearance that they are widening access, but it does not override the fact that there are non-selective state schools across the country that never send a single student to Oxford or Cambridge.
Year after year there are individual successes that make us think “oh, maybe Oxbridge are finally improving”, but these stories are always in the spotlight, set against a darker backdrop of continued elitism in an institution defined by pretence: gowned formal dinners, shorter intensive terms and a traditional college system – all of which cater to privileged students who have been trained for this experience through private education.
Oxford and Cambridge’s status as world class universities needs to be questioned. The fact that these universities still do not represent the most talented students from across the country, even after repeated insufficient attempts to make them more inclusive, is all the proof we need to show they are outdated institutions that will never completely escape their shameful past of exclusivity.