Unlike a white Christmas, annual Oxbridge bashing and counter-bashing is a seasonal guarantee. Interview season is upon us once again and while last year the focus on was Elly Nowell, this year Tom Mendelsohn in Indy Voices has caught the attention of many current undergraduates.
Some of the criticism is superficial and I don’t want to rise to the bait of sentences like “silver-spoon asshats in antique pantaloons”. I can only dispute such stereotypes with anecdotal evidence but in my experience of two-and-a-half years at Oxford, the particular private school caricature being described is very much in the minority. It seems unfair and counter-productive to suggest otherwise.
Stereotypes aside, there are a few points that the article makes which I would like to compare with my own experiences and, where possible, statistics in relation to Oxford.
1. “Oxford is rammed to the gunnels with floppy posh hair and bright red trousers”
The point here is clearly not a sartorial one, it’s that public school students are over-represented at Oxbridge. This is certainly true of Oxford; while 93% of the country is educated at state schools and 7% from independent, the intake is 57.5% state to 42.5% independent. However, this headline statistic is far from the whole story. Of those students achieving the required minimum AAA at A Level, 67% are state school to 33% from private, a ratio far closer to the balance Oxford is on its way to achieving (indeed Cambridge is now at that ratio). Moreover, a disproportionately high number of state school applications are for the five most oversubscribed subjects (35% of all state school applications versus 29% of private) and disproportionately low number for the five least oversubscribed subjects (13% state versus 18% private). Viewed in their broader context, Oxford’s imbalance is not as dramatic as it may appear and many of the factors that hinder state school students are beyond its control.
2. “The whole rotten Oxbridge edifice [is] supported by its wealthy alumni”
Again, this is absolutely true. The universities and their individual colleges receive enormous donations from alumni. Just this year, Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman gave £75m to Oxford which will rise to a whopping £300m with matched funding. However, far from supporting “the whole rotten Oxbridge edifice” this money will be used to abolish the tuition fee increase for the poorest pupils. This is on top of Oxford’s already generous bursary and outreach spending, which is estimated to be over £11m in 2012-13. Indeed, Oxford is using a higher proportion of the revenue from the fee hike than any other university on access and support (50%) - double the national average. Oxford is certainly supported by wealthy alumni, but the primary focus of these revenues is making the university as accessible as they can make it to those of all backgrounds.
3. “It’s no myth that tutors still delight in byzantine lines of questioning during an interview process that vastly favour the slick confidence that…a private education so effortlessly provides”
Sample questions on the Oxford website include “why do many animals have stripes?” and “what is language?”. These certainly seem like more conceptual questions than many candidates would be comfortable with. However, unpredictable conceptual questions, rather than aiding private school students, are an attempt to reset the balance. Such questions cannot be absolutely prepared for and by providing examples on the website the university does its best to let all students know what to expect.
The context of the questions should also be considered. Unlike on the website, students are guided through the questions by tutors rather than having them suddenly sprung on them. One tutor qualifies the “what is language?” sample question by saying “I would never launch this question at a candidate on its own, it might grow out of a discussion”. I have had four interviews at two different colleges and not one tutor tried to catch me out with a question like this. It is not in the interviewer’s interest, after taking the time to look at a candidate’s personal statement, reference, grades, admissions test, submitted essay and then inviting them to interview, to then blindside them into silence at interview.
4. “The vast majority of alumni end up working at banks, or hedge funds, or accountants…the very apparatus of social discohesion”
Since 2008, the most common employment for Oxford graduates is secondary school teaching (370 graduates). Second, third and fourth are different types of research positions (337, 297 and 266 respectively). In fact, management consultants only come in at number eight with 176 graduates. I accept the general point, however, that there are more financial analysts (174) than there are youth workers (5) and that Oxbridge graduates tend to go on to highly paid and ‘socially irresponsible’ positions.
Once again, this is to ignore the broader context. Go to an Oxford careers day and virtually every stand will be from a management consultancy, financial advice service or a business conglomerate. During last term, I even went to a journalism-specific careers day and there was not a single national newspaper, radio station or television station. Faced with headlines screaming about unemployment, it is a pretty big ask to expect new graduates to shun the only career opportunities they are being presented with in order to avoid becoming part of a socially divisive organisation. This is not the fault of the university careers service. These companies’ ability to afford to send representative to Oxford careers fairs is a far wider social problem than Oxford University and it is unreasonable to blame the university and is graduates for being one of the final links in the chain.
This isn’t an attempt to criticise Tom or his article (such criticism seems to have played out fairly unrelentingly in the Twitter arena). I simply think that wider context should be provided for some of the points raised and that it is unfair on both the unversity itself and the current student body to be portrayed as predominantly privileged and socially irresponsible. In spite of the university’s persistent efforts, from applications to employment, there are far wider social forces at play.