At the chalkface: The Oxbridge fetish

Written by: Ian Whitwham | Published:

I was at Oxford – whoops, there we go! Shut up! In 1452. It was all a bit fusty and disorientating. The unchecked privilege, dodgy heritage culture, casual sexism, gender blindness and whopping class bias...

How do you know if someone went to Oxford? “They tell you.”

It’s a Paul Whitehouse line and it’s true: sooner or later, they tell you. Unsolicited. No real context. They just pop it in the conversation, a tic of vanity, and leave you to be awed – at dinner parties, waiting rooms, funerals, train journeys, wherever.

What are you meant to say? Why do they feel compelled to flaunt this? They seem never to have left those dreaming spires.

There is still an assumption that Oxbridge is the place our “best” pupils should aspire to. So they apply like billyho – 20,000 applications for 3,200 places this year.

Interviews begin this week. Off they go, all brilliant, all groomed, all with that well-rehearsed, mercurial thinking. But wait a minute. Does anyone have reservations about all this?

Molly does. Molly is a state school pupil, introverted, unconfident and sensationally bright. Her teachers, of course, think they’d be mad not to take her. But someone hasn’t really been consulted in all of this. Molly.

Molly is working class. Of course that shouldn’t stop her going – high expectations and all that. Still, she has real anxieties. Is Oxbridge the right place for her? Does she have the right cultural capital? Would it involve ditching her own culture? Jon Snow has no illusions: “If you are here, you are not working class. You are now part of the elite.” Really? Molly’s not keen on elites

I was at Oxford – whoops, there we go! Shut up! In 1452. It was all a bit fusty and disorientating. The unchecked privilege, dodgy heritage culture, casual sexism, gender blindness and whopping class bias. But surely that’s all gone these days? I’m not sure. Nor is Molly.

She hears of Oxbridge’s doubtful contortions over ethnicities, of academic bullying, the lack of pastoral care, the hothouse atmosphere, those Stormzy scholarships and that nasty Steve Bannon blethering on last week in a debating chamber. And there are still not nearly enough working class students. Idle fears, says professor Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, who makes all the right noises about inclusiveness and diversity. “It falls on us to dispel the facile stereotypes of Cambridge as a bastion of privilege and self-serving elitism.”

Yes, colleges are doing their best with state schools visits and open days, but “facile stereotypes” are not so easily dispelled. Public school presence and culture seems to be still very much in the ascendant. Oxbridge entrance is obviously still not a level playing field.
Surely we need to stop fetishizing Oxbridge. There are many other “world class” universities that Molly could choose.

  • Ian Whitwham is a former inner city London teacher.


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