A very public call this week by Miles Hewstone, a disgruntled Oxford don, to drop the Oxbridge interview process for prospective candidates brought the issues of elitism, quotas and state education back into sharp focus.
There’s no denying that years ago a university education was available only to the privileged elite. In fact elitism has long existed between the various higher-education institutes themselves. Once upon a time some of the most prestigious present-day institutions, such as UCL, were the new kids on the block, derided by the Oxbridge elite. There followed a whole raft of red-brick red-necks, once the bottom of the heap and now forming the bulk of the prestigious Russell Group, not to mention the 1994 group, the former polys which got ideas above their station and thought they could compete with the big boys – and in many cases went on to prove that they can. What this goes to show is that things change, and institutions as well as candidates need to move with the times.
Despite rising tuition fees, university education has never been more accessible, but a place at Oxford or Cambridge remains the Holy Grail for able students keen to fulfil their potential and get their careers off to the best possible start. So how do they go about selecting the most able candidates? With A’ levels increasingly coming under fire for being dumbed down, more focus than ever is placed on personal statements, selection exams and interviews. But with this comes the age-old problem of inequality – many people feel that privately educated students are advantaged by being primed to the nth degree for their Oxbridge interviews, while hearsay has it that the “I knew your father, you’re in” culture still pervades. If this is the case, state-educated students are at a disadvantage – hence the widespread calls for quotas to ensure more of the highest achieving state-school pupils gain their rightful place.
Except that quotas offer no solution at all.
Quotas are a sure-fire way to undermine the system and ensure the ‘disadvantaged poor’ continue to be perceived as not being on an equal footing with their privileged counterparts. It may be true that in some colleges having the right background still opens doors that remain resolutely shut to others. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other doors. And you can bet your life that most students who are academically worthy of a place at one of the most highly regarded seats of learning wouldn’t want to give anyone the chance of saying they got in because of a quota.
The truth is that most people, Oxbridge dons included, believe the best brains should go to the best universities irrespective of background. It’s possible this doesn’t always happen – but if this is the case it’s due far more to the devastating failure of the British school system than to overt snobbery and nepotism amongst university tutors. No tutor is looking for the finished product in a selection interview – they’re looking for academic potential and a natural flair for the subject the student is applying to read. If these are missing, no amount of preparation will mask it. If they’re there, they will shine through.
I have no personal axe to grind here – my university days are past and my children’s are yet to come. I have no idea if they will have the capabilities to aim for top flight universities, or even to consider higher education at all. They are coming through the state system and maybe our future experience will cause me to eat my words. But right now all I can do is hope they will have the confidence to follow whatever path they choose, and teach them that it is hard work, not spurious quotas that will always win through in the end.
To say you can or can’t succeed from one walk of life or another is rubbish. Plenty of millionaires have come from humble beginnings by way of academia or otherwise, just as there are plenty of privately educated people throwing their advantage in their parents’ face and spending their life smoking dubious substances in run-down flat shares, courtesy of you, me and the rest of the country’s tax payers.
Social elitism has no place in the university selection process. Academic elitism on the other hand has everything to do with it and should be embraced, not punished. Lose the quotas, because if not it is talent and credibility that will be lost instead.