Elitism on the wrong track

June 16, 1995

There is something rotten about Oxbridge. These universities get more public money per student than any others; they get highly qualified students; they can afford to offer staff more comfortable working conditions. Yet students, disproportionately from private schools, whinge about bills and sulk when the National Union of Students fails to sympathise. Bursars warn of steeper fees to come and Old Boys think it OK to deny women membership of the universities' club.

These are excellent research universities. So they should be given their preferential funding through fees and the selective allocation of research money. Nothing wrong in that: we need universities which can compete internationally. The trouble is the conflation of research excellence with social privilege. A whole industry of private schools flourishes on the promise of Oxbridge places. The social skew on recruitment is harmful. Oxford and Cambridge have an atmosphere which deters many. They have the lowest application rates in the UK. This means the universities cannot trawl the national pool of talent efficiently for those most likely to benefit from and contribute to the research atmosphere.

As Christopher Ball argued in his open letter to the vice chancellor of Oxford, (THES April 14), the solution lies in building on Oxbridge's research mission. Forget special pleading about undergraduate teaching of the nation's elite: we need a wider and more catholic elite than Oxbridge can produce and we have some hundred universities to teach undergraduates.

Oxford and Cambridge should think of recasting admissions to match their research mission, selecting at the end of the first degree. The additional subsidy paid for students would then go to support the research base. Sadly there is little sign in the submissions to the North review of Oxford that such possibilities will be considered. Pity: if they were, the silly asses of the Oxford and Cambridge club might never have got in.

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