Elite schools hold onto pathways to power

White tie and tails: Almost 40% of Oxford University students were privately educated. © Getty

Should Oxbridge be abolished? Today, UK exam boards start checking grades. Critics say students from private schools have an unfair advantage when applying to top universities.

The long wait begins. All A-Level grades have now been sent to exam boards, where school decisions will be carefully assessed before results day on 10 August. The government wants to avoid a repeat of last year’s grade inflation and make the process fair for all students.

But some believe it is already unfair. New data shows a small number of elite, fee-paying schools took the lion’s share of offers from the country’s top two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, between 2018 and 2020.

Trinity College, Cambridge, offered 22 places to pupils at Westminster School, the highest number made by one college to a single school. Nine Oxford colleges handed out the most offers to Eton College, the former school of 20 prime ministers, including Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

Oxford and Cambridge are collectively known as Oxbridge. Critics like the Labour MP David Lammy call them: “a bastion of white, middle class, southern privilege.” In 2017, Oxford accepted more pupils from Westminster than Black students from the whole of the UK.

Labour says this “exclusive route” harms social mobility. Evidence compiled by the Sutton Trust shows a direct “pipeline” from independent schools through Oxbridge to the most high-paying and high-status jobs in the UK. The trust calls it elitism.

Oxford’s vice-chancellor disagrees. Louise Richardson says: we are “an elite institution – but we are not elitist”. She continues that there have been record admissions from state schools and Black and ethnic minorities and that “there has been a sea change”.

She says it is “crude” to criticise the universities. Private schools can charge over £30,000 a year but also give financial help to “poor, smart kids” who are then accepted by Oxbridge. They reflect wider inequalities and can’t be expected to change society.

Others disagree. Writer Owen Jones, an Oxford graduate, says that the “public school ethos” of Oxbridge puts off people from less privileged backgrounds. He recalls sitting exams in “silly costumes”, Latin prayers and standing up “when the Master of your college walks in”.

He says the interview system is also a problem. Private schools prepare their students to be “confident, self-assured and able to hold their own in a debate”. Journalist Phil McDuff goes further: Oxbridge produces too many “overconfident” graduates lacking in “ability”.

Their solution: close the gates to new students and focus on research. Canada, Australia and Sweden all have better social mobility than the UK and benefit from having no “world-beating universities” but plenty of good ones.

In a world without Oxford and Cambridge, no degree would be an automatic “passport” to high-status positions. And a rejection letter would not feel like the end of the world.

But this opens a debate about the role of universities. The physicist Bertram Bowden said we must drink “from a running stream” not a “stagnant pool” and teaching and research belong in the same institution. Separate them and both will suffer.

So should Oxbridge be abolished?

An Eton mess

Some say no, getting rid of Oxbridge would not solve society’s problems. It would deny intelligent young students the right to study at a world-class institution. Instead of abolishing Oxbridge, it should be opened up to more people so that the whole of society can benefit from its resources. There is nothing wrong with an educated elite if everyone has the opportunity to be a part of it.

Others say yes, Oxbridge is unfixable and distorts society. It belongs to a bygone era when a small ruling class controlled society. Its traditions and subjects are old-fashioned and do not prepare students for real life. By valuing Oxbridge degrees over other qualifications, society promotes people beyond their ability whilst removing opportunities for talented non-Oxbridge graduates.

You Decide

  1. What are universities for?
  2. What is the difference between elite and elitism?

Activities

  1. Watch the video: What are universities for‘? Then in pairs, draw a plan for your perfect university.
  2. Divide the class in half and debate the proposition: This house believes Oxbridge is bad for society.

Some People Say...

“The first duty of a university is to teach wisdom, not trade; character, not technicalities.”

Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), British Prime Minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Oxbridge is dominated by a small number of privately-funded schools. Between 2015 and 2017, eight schools accounted for 1,310 Oxbridge places. According to the latest data, only three of the top ten schools are state-funded. However, last year a record 62.3% of new Oxford students were state-educated and this year, Brampton Manor Academy received more offers than Eton. A majority of its students come from ethnic minorities and over half are eligible for free school meals.
What do we not know?
One area of debate surrounds the purpose of universities. Students pay fees for education in their chosen subject and are tested on what they have learnt. However, this knowledge is not always relevant to a future career. Universities may teach critical thinking and allow students to gain confidence and live independently. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued education was about acquiring “cultural capital”, learning how to behave in order to be accepted in a class or social group.

Word Watch

Grade inflation
Due to Covid, the government replaced exams with an algorithm to decide grades. After opposition, exam boards used school-assessed results which led to a 13% increase in A and A* grades.
Fee-paying
Also referred to as private, independent or – confusingly – public schools. In America, a public school is publicly funded by the state. In the UK, the term comes from their original role as charitable schools for poor students.
Westminster School
The school was founded in the precinct of Westminster Abbey by Elizabeth I in 1560. It has roots going back to King Offa in the 8th Century.
Eton College
Founded in 1440 by Henry VI, Eton has taught many royal pupils including Prince William and Prince Harry.
Social mobility
In March, a poll by the Social Mobility Commission showed 39% of people think it is getting harder for less advantaged families to move up in society.
Sutton Trust
A charity set up in 1997 to improve social mobility and widen access to education.
State schools
Until the 1870 Elementary Education Act, all schools in England and Wales were charitable or privately funded.
Sea change
A complete change in the way things are done. It comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Subjects

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