Act now for more open universities

November 28, 1997

Despite paying lip-service to open access, Oxbridge remains a bastion of the upper professional classes. If it truly wants to admit more state-school students, there is plenty it can do, argues Andrew Adonis

It is time for Oxford and Cambridge to stop wringing their hands about their extreme social exclusivity and do something serious about broadening their access and mission. Many (including me) who want to see them continue as world-class universities, supported by the taxpayer, cannot watch with enthusiasm while they remain largely finishing schools to prepare children of the upper professional classes for jobs in the City and a tiny range of Super Class occupations.

Oxbridge pays lip-service to open access. Cambridge, in particular, has done so vocally since the government announced its review of the college fee. Yet the fact remains that half of their places go to private school pupils, while only a third of those gaining three A grades at A level are privately educated. Even the state-educated half hails almost entirely from the remaining 161 grammar schools and a small number of comprehensives whose catchment areas have been colonised by the professional classes. If Oxbridge is a meritocracy, ability and talent are mysteriously concentrated in the richest fifth of society.

Attempts to broaden access are patchy and mostly half-hearted. There are open days, and some dons actively recruit from state schools, even visiting the odd comprehensive. But these isolated efforts are dwarfed by the established links between colleges and private schools. And there is far too much reflex conservatism, typified by unthinking Oxbridge denunciations of attempts at "social engineering". Which educational institution in the country is not a social engineer? The challenge is to do some sensible engineering to reduce class barriers, instead of continuing the 30-year trend towards solidifying them.

The destinations of Oxbridge students are as exclusive as their origins. Indeed, the one reinforces the other. My recent book, A Class Act, documents the mass flight of Oxbridge graduates to the City, and away from public-sector careers, especially teaching, over the past three decades. Oxford now sends about 900 graduates a year into the City (including law), but fewer than 100 into state school teaching. Surprise, surprise: most comprehensive students know nothing of the two universities except Brideshead, which is about the best possible aversion therapy even for those who think they might make the grade.

Here are four suggestions for immediate action, aimed at tackling both ends of the problem (ie, student recruitment and the destination of graduates).

First, Oxford and Cambridge should follow the example of the Ivy League universities and employ large teams of full-time recruiters, most of them recent graduates eager to do something challenging and "useful" at lowish pay for a few years. Princeton, half the size of Oxford, has 14 young admissions officers who spend much of the year on the road, some of it visiting high schools in designated "outreach" areas with no Ivy League tradition. There are also special "minority" recruitment officers, who target ethnic groups poorly represented at the university.

As Karin Emry, a Princeton graduate now at Nuffield College, Oxford, puts it, "The admissions office don't so much target 'poor' schools as seek out schools that are outside the traditional Princeton network and where there are a lot of academically excelling students." If Oxbridge wants to achieve a 2:1 state:private ratio in short order, it should do something similar to get a far larger proportion of adequately qualified state school-leavers to apply in the first place.

Second, Oxbridge needs to shape its courses and culture so as to open, not restrict, access. For instance, Oxford still admits almost as many students to read classics as modern languages. Classics is notoriously dominated by the private schools, which still teach Latin and Greek. In the rest of the country, teenagers study French, German and Spanish.

Third, the universities should set ambitious access targets, supported by greater flexibility in admissions procedures. Oxbridge admissions tutors should be pragmatic in search of the best students from a broad social range. Some are so already, and most reasonable people would accept that candidates from Eton, say, and a Hackney comprehensive should not be judged on exactly the same scale.

When I put this idea to one Oxford don anxious to safeguard the college fee, she proposed a still more radical course. "Increasing the proportion of state students to 65 per cent, fast, is a fair goal, so we should impose a quota and be done with it." When I demurred, she added: "Of course, there would be some who were not up to it in the first year or two, but we would soon make it our business to get out and recruit kids we wanted to teach. We are talking about 5,000 state schools." Perhaps she is right.

Which brings us to the progressive disappearance of Oxbridge-educated state-school teachers. Being realistic, the only course likely to boost numbers significantly and quickly is one loosely modelled on the army's short-term commission. In return for a bursary while studying, students would commit to teaching for, say, four years after graduation, perhaps with an obligation to go where sent by the Department for Education and Employment. Many students, even among the ranks of future City lawyers and bankers, might see this as a worthwhile challenge, something good for the cv and for the bank balance at a time when student overdrafts are looming. It might even produce a big increase in the number of top graduates staying in teaching, if it were linked to fast-track promotion.

For such a scheme to work, both the DfEE and Oxbridge would have to cooperate in its design and then sell it hard. (It should be part of a national scheme for student high-fliers, an issue for a separate article on improving the teaching profession.) But whatever the precise form, government and Oxbridge would at last be working together constructively to open up the two universities without destroying their world-class status. And that would be a welcome change from the present confrontation over the college fee.

Andrew Adonis is a columnist on The Observer and a former fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

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