Bitter war of words over university elitism

Claim: “In 2015, only 15 black, male undergraduates were accepted into Cambridge,” read this photo’s caption.

Is elitism defensible? As Oxford University publishes its admissions data for the first time in 800 years, one British politician has denounced it as “a bastion of privilege”.

“It’s very elitist, very, very white,” Oxford student Taiwo Oyebola told the BBC yesterday. She was discussing her Classics course, where she is “one of a few people of colour”. She joked about “Eton row” in her lectures, where “all the Eton boys sit”.

Yesterday, the university published its admissions data for the first time. The figures showed that white British students were twice as likely to be admitted as black applicants. One college, Corpus Christi, admitted only one black student in three years (2015-2017). Seven more colleges admitted only two in the same period.

Meanwhile, students from private schools were 33% more likely to get a place, and students from London were twice as likely to get in than students from Yorkshire and the North West. In fact, in 2017 there were more students admitted from a single London private school than there were black students from the whole of Britain.

It is far from the first time that Oxford — or Britain itself — has been accused of elitism. One in 10 of the country’s current MPs went to Eton. Of the UK’s last 10 prime ministers, eight went to Oxford.

“The university has all sorts of excuses why it doesn’t admit more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let down by the school system, they don’t get the grades. They don’t apply in sufficient numbers. They apply for the most popular, competitive subjects,” writes columnist Sonia Sodha.

Others are passionate in its defence. The leading biographer of the Beatles, Philip Norman, wrote about his daughter’s experience: “Jessica’s three years at the hub of student life had not a whiff of snobbery or elitism. Her friends on the English course and in the drama set… almost all came from ordinary homes and state schools and had parents just as dazzled by their offspring’s achievements as I was by hers… Her two main English tutors, both women, outstanding in their respective fields… were products of state schools.”

“Oxford is an elite university, not an elitist one. Oxford is elite, as Manchester United or Real Madrid are elite,” said Oxford’s former vice-chancellor, Dr John Hood.

Isn’t that a good thing?

Elite weight

Yes of course it is good, say some. Elitism, rooted in talent, or an appreciation of it, is nothing to apologise for. Rather, it is a cause for celebration. Whether it is Daniel Barenboim conducting or Usain Bolt breaking world records on the track, there is no shame in belonging to the blessed.

No, be careful, say others. Meritocracy, or the idea that status comes from talent not privilege, is a myth. It has been shown time and again that talent and privilege are deeply interwoven. Meritocracy is a smokescreen for inequality.

You Decide

  1. Should Oxford offer different admissions criteria to disadvantaged students?
  2. Is Britain an elitist country?


  1. Without looking them up in the dictionary, write down what you think “elite” and “elitism” mean. Compare them with the person next to you before looking up official definitions.
  2. Class debate: This house believes that Oxbridge is bad for Britain.

Some People Say...

“Elitism is the slur directed at merit by mediocrity.”

Sydney J. Harris

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The number of ethnic minority students who are admitted to Oxford is rising: it was 17.9% last year, up from 13.9% in 2013. This includes Asian and mixed-race students. The number of students admitted who identified themselves as black rose from 1.1% in 2013 to 1.9% last year. For context, around 3% of the UK’s population is black, according to the 2011 census.
What do we not know?
Why more black students, or poor students, are not admitted. Some accuse the university of outright racism and class discrimination. Others argue that state schools are underfunded and therefore cannot compete with wealthy private schools. Others say the problem is with the idea that schools like Oxford and Cambridge are “not for” some communities, which discourages students from applying.

Word Watch

Eton boys
A reference to Eton College, a prestigious boys’ private school in Berkshire. Nineteen UK prime minsters were educated there, including David Cameron.
More students
According to the Oxford student newspaper Cherwell, last year the university admitted 49 students from Westminster School and only 48 black students.
The exceptions are Gordon Brown, who went to Edinburgh, and John Major, who did not attend university.
Sonia Sodha
Writing for The Guardian.
A society where the most talented people can rise to the top based on their abilities alone.


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