Excellence has to be elite

October 31, 1997

It is regrettable when politicians use superficial and populist rhetoric to advance views concerning serious public policy. On the subject of Oxbridge receiving Pounds 2,000 a head extra in funding, Phil Woolas (THES, October 24) says that "no new Labourite would argue against excellence", but they would argue against "elitism and privilege".

But what could excellence in academic study and research mean if it did not refer to the convergence of the country's greatest academics and brightest students? In other words, it is an academic elite.

An opportunity to work and learn in such a centre of excellence has to be regarded as an immense privilege. Hence, I fail to see how one could support excellence and yet oppose elitism and privilege.

To rescue this incoherent stance, one could usefully point out that what almost everybody is arguing against is admission to these centres of academic excellence through elitist criteria such as family wealth that have no relevance to academic excellence. Unfortunately for Woolas's argument, cutting the extra collegiate funding for Oxbridge would either reduce excellence, which apparently no new Labourite would want, or force Oxbridge to introduce top-up fees, which would surely only make Oxbridge less accessible to people from poorer backgrounds.

Yes, then Oxbridge would truly be elitist in the wrong way; attendance at centres of academic excellence would be dependent (at least partially) on a financially privileged background. Would a new Labourite support such a consequence?

Woolas thinks there is a certain circularity in Oxbridge's position: "It is the best because it gets the most money and it gets the most money because it is the best." I am afraid this again displays a glibness that shies away from confronting the logic of what is being argued. For, if it were the case that Oxbridge was the best simply because it gets the most money, then would pouring similar amounts of money into other institutions make them equally "best"?

The truth is that Oxbridge can be the best because of a combination of talented people and academic resources.

But money is not the reason why Oxbridge is the best: it is a necessary condition for its continued excellence. It is instrumental to, not constitutive of, its success.

Woolas asks rhetorically "Why should one-to-one tuition be given for basic first-year courses?" Yes, why indeed, for basic first-year courses? But that is the point: an Oxbridge education is valued precisely because it does not just settle for a basic inculcation of knowledge but aims for more than that. Where else in the world would undergraduates be expected to study on their own and write two substantial papers a week?

One final point. Woolas asks why we should not have quotas for Oxbridge entrance. The answer is that for as long as Oxbridge courses maintain their demanding nature, it would dishonest, and detrimental to all concerned, to encourage more people to come and study, say, physics and philosophy on the basis of anything other than academic potential. To be dissatisfied with the under-representation of state school students in Oxbridge is perfectly justifiable. But to suggest a cutting of funding because of this, or to clamour for a system of quotas, is a bit like suppressing the symptoms at all cost without any regard for the underlying illness.

We want to see bright people of all backgrounds share and contribute to the excellence of Oxbridge, but it seems that by the time this government has finished with its higher education policy, the Oxbridge universities may not even be the centres of excellence that made them worth while for able state-school students to attend in the first place.

Grant Chum. Corpus Christi College. Oxford

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