I doubt anyone would dispute that there are considerable advantages in getting your degree at Oxford or Cambridge – certainly Oxbridge graduates appear to dominate the professions and other high status roles in society. Indeed, it sometimes seems that Britain has long been governed by graduates of those universities. No harm in that, of course, if it means that our leaders’ natural abilities have been enhanced by the best higher education available. And I suspect that the tutorial system Oxbridge can afford is likely to bring out the best in anyone.
However, there are long-standing and quite proper concerns that the Oxbridge phenomenon, combined with the public schools system, has created a self-perpetuating elite from which the many talented young people from less advantaged backgrounds are excluded. No politician has yet dared to challenge the role of private education in our society, but there’s much huffing and puffing from time to time about the narrow intake at Oxford and Cambridge. Sometimes the universities are accused of institutional bias against pupils from less affluent backgrounds, sometimes state schools are blamed for having low expectations of what their pupils could achieve.
Despite some well-intentioned initiatives there’s been no evidence of radical change and some recent figures from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have shown just how unsatisfactory the present situation is. These figures show the number of children admitted to Oxbridge in 2009-10 from each of England’s 150 local authorities. All of the top ten councils for Oxbridge entrants were in the South East of England: Surrey with 280 fortunate school-leavers came top, a haul equal to the combined total from almost a third of England’s other local authorities. By contrast 11 areas failed to send a single student to either Oxford or Cambridge. And a similar pattern prevailed at the twenty leading Russell Group universities.
These rather shocking facts clearly suggest how we might radically improve access to Oxbridge, a national institution which appears to have been captured by one area of the nation. If we wanted to do more than tinker at the margins we could choose to allocate a number of places at Oxford and Cambridge to each local authority, pro rata to their number of A-level students. Each local authority could then draw up a shortlist of qualified candidates from which the universities could select their students. The result would be a much fairer distribution, with every part of Britain represented, and more young people from less advantaged backgrounds encouraged to apply. Nothing this radical will happen, of course, not because of practical difficulties, but because any radical change would be intensely unpopular with the affluent middle class of Southeast England, and don’t forget: those are the families who’ve been running the country for years.