Oxford admissions rouse passion as two tribes war over 'unfairness'

Privilege and discrimination: what better topics for a frenzied debate? John Morgan listened in

November 1, 2012

Credit: Alamy/GettyFight to the finish: Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws was told to ‘belt up’ by Toby Young at a debate over the University of Oxford’s admissions process

You might be surprised to hear the principal of a University of Oxford college speaking at the Oxford Union in support of a motion maintaining that the institution’s admissions “are still unfair” - and pursuing her case with such vigour that one opposition speaker tells her to “belt up”.

But this was the personal battle between Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, principal of Mansfield College, and journalist Toby Young that broke out over the issue of admissions for students from low-income backgrounds.

On 25 October, the Oxford Union debated the motion “This house believes that Oxford admissions are still unfair”.

Lady Kennedy, who was first to speak in support of the motion, leads a college noted for offering state-school pupils better access to Oxford: Mansfield offered 84.5 per cent of its places to state students in 2011.

She bemoaned the fact that only “around 7 per cent” of pupils go to independent schools, yet such children make up “slightly less than 50 per cent” of the student population at Oxford. Black students, those who had grown up in care and undergraduates from further education colleges were all too scarce at Oxford, Lady Kennedy said.

When pupils have gone to “a really poor school but have shown how clever they are, give them an opportunity to prove themselves…and take account of the background from which they come”, she argued.

“I don’t want to hear that this is a problem of the schools. It is our problem, too, and there are ways in which we can remedy it.”

The Very Reverend Christopher Lewis, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, spoke against the motion. He said that Oxford admissions operated under a “devolved system” with decisions made by individual tutors and thus “not open to any form of manipulation”.

Oxford and the University of Cambridge make “far greater efforts than any other university to widen [the] pool [of applicants],” he said, citing outreach programmes such as Oxford’s summer school.

Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, spoke in support of the motion. It was the outcomes of Oxford admissions that were unfair, “not the process itself”, he argued.

His suggested remedy was to offer Oxbridge places to the “best-performing two or three kids in every school in the UK”, and to cap the proportion of places awarded to private school pupils at a maximum of 10 per cent.

Mr Burns added: “The other unfairness here is that admission to Oxbridge has such a disproportionate impact on your future after graduation. The talent pool is wider than Oxbridge and other selective institutions. We need the government and private- and public-sector employers to recognise that.”

But Mr Burns’ argument for quotas was dismissed by Mr Young. The co-founder of the West London Free School, tipped as a future Conservative MP, said: “One of the reasons…Oxford is a world-leading university is because it admits the most able students regardless of background.

“If it began to introduce quotas…then it wouldn’t be admitting the most able and its status would quickly sink.”

That provoked a challenge from Lady Kennedy, who said: “The same arguments you are using now have been used to prevent women arriving in serious numbers in the professions, in the judiciary.”

Mr Young had begun his speech against the motion by describing his own entry into Oxford. He was given a low BBB offer to study philosophy, politics and economics at Brasenose College under a scheme to give access to comprehensive pupils, he said.

Mr Young missed his offer but received a letter appearing to confirm his place, followed by one rejecting him.

He was admitted after his father, Lord Young of Dartington, spoke to an admissions tutor to clarify the confusion, and went on to gain a first-class degree.

Mr Young’s further arguments against lowering the bar for poorer students prompted Lady Kennedy to interrupt again, shouting at him in exasperated fashion: “You are the recipient of positive discrimination.”

After telling the persistent peer to “belt up”, Mr Young added that the “main objection to positive discrimination is that you’re rewarding failure. You’re saying to state schools, ‘no need to raise standards to improve the attainment of your brightest pupils, we’ll just lower the bar.’”

About his own Oxford entry, he said: “I did not get in as a result of positive discrimination. They lowered the bar and I still couldn’t get in. I got in as a result of an accident.”

The motion was defeated by 187 votes to 143.


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