Prescription to treat real Oxbridge scandal

April 21, 2011

David Cameron looks fit to give David Lammy a run for his money in terms of ignorant comments about Oxbridge admissions (The week in higher education, 14 April). Migrants everywhere want their children to enter the professions or business to secure the best future for themselves. As the University of Oxford points out, nearly half of black applicants apply for three (oversubscribed) subjects: medicine; mathematics; and economics with management.

The real "Oxbridge scandal" facing today's young generation is that most cannot locate, let alone use, the tools of ambition and aspiration. We know that the media, politics and the Civil Service are populated overwhelmingly by people who took "deep yet broad" humanities degrees. Yet as routes to personal development, such degrees are practically invisible to the majority of state school students.

Many years ago, like other sixth-formers in non-feeder schools, I pondered prospectuses listing Literae humaniores ("Eh?"); philosophy, politics and economics ("PPE? Never heard of it"); and archaeology and anthropology ("What's the point of digging things up?"). Such ignorance persists. Should we get rid of these faculties in our ancient universities, or widen understanding of their purpose?

Our historical culture need not be the preserve of the elite. Why should the ancient civilisations that underpin our political institutions be taught only to the rich? Why should the challenge and the pleasure of the allegedly irrelevant be available only in private schools? Why should that boy in Brixton not model himself on Marcus Aurelius? Yet Classics at Oxbridge remains an easy option for Tim Nice-But-Dim from Wellington School due to the lack of provision elsewhere. And PPE is not even on the menu for state schools. Oxford is surely not just a place for bottom- level vocational training, as it was for me...

As an epidemiologist, I concern myself with the risk factors for disease. If we are serious about the value of a general higher education, then the universities must spread the "risk factors" for success across our whole society, however elitist they may seem at the moment.

Jackie Cassell, Brighton and Sussex Medical School

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