Oxbridge Rights and Murky Meritocracy

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission yesterday published this report (click here), titled ‘Elitist Britain?’, which illuminates the strangehold that Oxbridge and private school-educated individuals now have over the institutions of power. Arguing for class to be prioritised alongside gender and racial inequalities, the report rightly criticises the disproportionate over-representation of the affluent in the establishment – a deeply ingrained and familiar irk – although within this, there is a smaller but still notable scandal.

In the societal context of racial and gender inequality, to argue for ‘Oxbridge rights’ seems laughable – many reading this will switch off immediately – but for a specific subset of Oxbridge-educated individuals, there is a battle that needs to be fought.

A couple of weeks ago we had the A Level Results Da, and my local paper – the Newham Recorder – was packed with inspirational success stories. Children from one of London’s most economically stifled boroughs have been triumphing over adversity and hardship, as a consequence of their and their teachers’ hard work. Some of them are going to Oxford and Cambridge. If their successful trajectory continues, maybe they will achieve highly in the professional domain; as lawyers, politicians and journalists, perhaps.

But at this point, their story moves from being the form of an inspiring novella to a neutral spreadsheet. The poor-kid-done-good becomes just another instance of Oxbridge’s inequitable domination over the professions.

The suggestion is not that Oxbridge is being unfairly denigrated as an elite – it is elitism in its purest form. The suggestion is that some of the people who come to be eyed suspiciously as being part of the elitism problem have worked solidly for sixteen years and got themselves there off of their own backs. Not seeking to start a class war here, but let the expensively-educated among the Oxbridge alumni bear the brunt of talk of injustice, because it lies with them. Yes, some of the privately-educated young people are among the top tier – the academic elite – of Britain, but some of the academic elite would not be gallivanting around a hallowed cloister were it not for the financial, social and cultural capital of their families. Academic talent does exist, but it does not follow the same pattern of distribution as do academic outcomes and the university a student attends.

This is why we shoulud be cautious as well as angry upon reading this report. If the numbers of Oxbridge-educated individuals were to be reduced in the name of fairer representation, you can guarantee that the first ones out of the network will be those without the support networks, social capital and cultural knowledge of the professional world: the state-school kids from disadvantaged areas who got to Oxford and Cambridge despite the odds being against them. Without the network of contacts that a private education can afford, these pupils are at a disadvantage, and once the ‘Oxbridge cull’ begins in the professions, they’d be the first ones up for the chop.

Yes the institutions of society should be opened up to a much wider field than just Oxbridge graduates and those that received an elite private education, but let’s not forget the self-directed state-school successes who are hidden among the Oxbridge alumni.

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