Is Oxbridge entrenching privilege? Or is inverse snobbery as big a problem?

From The Times, London

“How can we improve Britain’s “stagnant” levels of social mobility? Labour activists would like to abolish private schools, and that would surely help. But a better way to disrupt “elite self-perpetuation” would be to target Oxford and Cambridge. If we stopped those bastions of “inherited prestige and wealth” from teaching undergraduates, they would no longer be seen as incubators of the next ruling class. Canada, Australia and Sweden all have private schools, yet also have above-average social mobility. That’s partly because they don’t have highly prestigious universities that confer “a life-changing advantage” on the lucky few; just lots of good universities where students can get a decent education before proving themselves in the job market. Binning undergraduates might benefit Oxford and Cambridge, too, as they currently lose money on these students. The universities could concentrate on research and teaching postgrads, and expand their summer schools for disadvantaged students. It would retain what’s best about Oxbridge, but reduce the status-symbol aspect of these institutions that so distorts British life”.  (Simon Kuper, Financial Times, 10 August 2019)

I must declare a sinister fact – I am a product of this much-attacked educational duo.  I happen to have graduated with a a respectable degree, and wanted to get a marketing job with a manufacturer of consumer products, starting as a trainee, obviously, at the bottom.  Dozens of fruitless job applications later I at last got an interview.  “You are over-qualified”, I was told.  I thought I had no qualifications whatsoever, except a desire to learn, a frantic work ethic, and two years in the army.

Commentators such as Mr. Kuper don’t attend to inverse snobbery.  Maybe the interviewer thought I would be trying to run his international business by the end of the first year.  The reality is that you are almost forced into the professions, government or similar by what looked like prejudice.  The author talks about “proving yourself in the job market”.  Tell me about it!

I am all in favour of democratising intake at Oxbridge (from being all male, my old college is now 60% female), but we have to deal with the prejudice of hirers who employ people exactly like themselves.  The dire British class system was alive and well in my young day, and class resentment is hard to deal with for a young fellow with democratic leanings but the wrong education for a commercial job.  The other side of the coin!

One Comment

  1. I’m afraid Labour’s approach to social mobility is all wrong. Rather than attacking Oxbridge and the private schools- the aspects of our education system which are actually working- it would be far better to improve the failing state schools, mediocre universities and underfunded further education colleges. If the worse aspects of the education system were to be enhanced, the privileges that come from attending the best schools and universities would diminish. More parents would decide school fees weren’t good value for money, and that spending large sums of money on Oxbridge tutors wasn’t worth the cost.

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