Is it really wicked if it works?

March 29, 2002

Pembroke College faces criticism for considering creating a place for a benefactor's child but Alan Ryan sees nothing sinister in the strategy.

Amid the high-minded commentary on the Pembroke "places-for-cash" scandal, it is time for some low-minded scepticism.

Which are the best universities in the world? Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford and a handful of others. Do they give places to the children of benefactors? You bet they do. Is this a good thing? Well, chancellor Gordon Brown complained that Oxford did not behave like Harvard - but the other face of a university that offers places to affirmative-action students, ethnic minorities, footballers and cellists as well as some very clever young people, is that it will also offer places to foster the future of the university. Of course, these students must be good enough to flourish at Harvard. Beyond that, they have got to be what the university thinks it needs.

So, students are selected to foster family ties, to provide geographical diversity, to encourage faculty children, and, yes, to recognise benefactions. Alumni children at the same academic level have a ten times better chance of acceptance than the average student. But, it is also true that the inner-city black student will have as good a chance as the alumni child. Is this wicked? It plainly does Harvard no harm. Its alumni go on to run the world. Last I heard, prime minister Tony Blair wanted Oxford to emulate Harvard, not the other way about.

Both the London School of Economics and Imperial College make ends meet by taking substantial numbers of overseas students who pay much higher fees than the locals. To all intents, both of them are semi-privatised institutions. One might twitch a bit if well-qualified students from the United Kingdom were being turned down in favour of less well-qualified students from overseas - but there is nothing to suggest this is happening. So, suppose Pembroke had given away all the places that the government was prepared to fund. What is the difference between topping up with a few overseas students to help pay the bills and topping up with the children of a few well-off alumni to pay a few more?

Perhaps the thought is that it is wicked to select students on any grounds other than academic merit? If it is, we are doomed to wickedness. Oxbridge admissions are more meritocratic than anyone else's, but we don't achieve perfection - we can't.

Imagine if Oxbridge gave away three-quarters of its places on pure academic merit and one-quarter on the basis of sports or musical ability, affirmative action or because students are the children of benefactors. It would be a very new-Labour, public-private-partnership strategy.

So, why not? One reason is that unlike Harvard, Princeton, Yale et al, Oxford and Cambridge are outliers in the British system. Going to Yale rather than Princeton or to Stanford rather than either, is neither here nor there. But Oxford and Cambridge occupy such a peculiar position in British education that we just cannot do what the Ivy League does.

The other reason is that education, especially in Britain, is the great leveller - it is blind to wealth, social status and politics. Better to send the heads of colleges out with begging bowls when you need a new roof or a new nuclear physicist than to violate one of the few democratic sentiments with wide popular appeal.

Universities ought to be places where who you are does not count but what you can do does. It is hard not to feel that Harvard and Princeton would be better universities if they were a bit more bleakly meritocratic and a bit less like interwar Oxbridge.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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