Time for Oxbridge to think again

October 24, 1997

PERHAPS the biggest faux pas I have ever made, and there have been some whoppers, was towelcome the new students to Cambridge with a rant against the inequities of the parental contribution grants system. "Over half of parents don't pay up," I whinged. The freshers fell about laughing. To be fair, Edward Windsor saw the joke.

The reason why there are not more students from a working- class background at Oxford and Cambridge is that the students do not bother to apply. It is the same reason why there are not many working-class lawyers: most think it is out of their reach.

At my own sixth-form college, just to apply to Oxbridge you had to stay on another year, never mind be admitted. So while it is true that half the students at Oxford and Cambridge are from the independent sector, it is not entirely the universities' fault.

To change the proportion, which arithmetically and logically must lead to even higher standards of achievement (unless state students are genetically dimmer than their independent school brothers and sisters), two things must happen. First, sixth-form teachers must encourage their best to apply and, second, the government must fulfil its pledge to stop top-up fees.

So what is the government's attitude? Only two of the cabinet, Tony Blair and Chris Smith, went to Oxford or Cambridge as their first university. The rest, and they all did go to university, went to a wide variety of institutions, with Durham and Edinburgh boasting two MPs each. It is reasonable to suppose that there is no favouritism for Oxbridge in the cabinet. But is there then a hostility?

There is an argument, which the Oxbridge vice chancellors have been keen to pre-empt, that these universities get more than their fair share, Pounds 2,000 per head more to be precise. Of course, we get a lot for our money. They are world renowned centres of excellence and no new Labourite would want to argue against excellence. But we would want to argue against elitism and privilege.

I think most Labour MPs are not enthusiastic about tuition fees. They will, reluctantly, troop through the lobby on the grounds that education secretary David Blunkett's scheme is the best to be hoped for. But they would not put up with feathering privilege. So if the top universities want to top up their fees, they would face hostility from the backbenches and, I am certain, the government.

It could be argued that the more a university can raise from its own resources, the less it should get from the public purse. And there is a certain circularity about Oxbridge's position: it is the best because it gets the most money and it gets the most money because it is the best. In truth, however, they do get more than their fair shares because of the collegiate systems, something I have never liked since trying to work out a fair affiliation arrangement when I was treasurer of the National Union of Students.

But why should there be huge duplication? Why should one-to-one tuition be given for basic first-year courses? Why should others suffer because of ancient traditions, inefficient buildings and special treatment? And why should we not have quotas for entrance to encourage all schools to submit their best students? If modernisation is the crusade of the new government then why leave Oxbridge alone?

Phil Woolas is MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth.

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