Slay the Oxbridge myths (2 of 2)

January 19, 2012

George Fieldman says that it would be unfair to penalise privately educated schoolchildren by imposing a quota system on Oxbridge in proportion to the number of such children in the education sector generally ("Simply pick the best", Letters, 5 January). He adds that for there to be completely fair access to the best universities, we must evaluate each child on merit, irrespective of the school they attended.

However, both these arguments are based on an unwarranted and unacknowledged assumption - namely that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are the best in this country and that it is somehow unfair to compel the privately educated to study anywhere else.

Rather than rank universities as a whole as is usually done in league tables, it would be much better to do so by subject area and/or department.

If I were a sixth-form student (or the parent of such) and wanted to study astronomy, I might be better off going to the University of Manchester to study with that nice Brian Cox from the television, or if I wanted to study criminology, the best option might be going to the London School of Economics to do so with Tim Newburn or Paul Rock. Is it really the case then that someone is necessarily so much better educated at Oxbridge than they would be at Manchester or LSE? I just don't think so.

If on the other hand the real reason for going to Oxbridge is to perpetuate the existence of an elite (political, cultural and legal), then there is everything to be gained by bringing to an end this damaging and divisive situation as soon as possible.

As far as fairness in the selection of undergraduates to Oxbridge goes, I do not agree that this can be done on individual merit at interview, when as is well known, privately educated students are schooled in how to do well at such interviews by teachers who themselves have in all probability attended the same Oxbridge colleges.

Rather, because of the much poorer correlation of eventual degree grade to A-level result than is generally assumed, I think it would be better to admit a certain proportion of students from each education sector - private, selected, further education and comprehensive - to all universities according to how well students from such schools had done in previous years in particular subject areas.

This would at least be an equal-opportunity measure of achievement that compared students at the end of their degrees with others who had had exactly the same chances to do well.

If highly motivated state students at Oxbridge do as well or better than privately educated ones there can be no reason to go on with the present elitist policy. There would be no unfairness, either, if some privately educated students were forced to go to the LSE, or, God forbid, even Manchester!

Ken Smith, Senior lecturer in criminology, Bucks New University

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