HuffPost: ‘Why Oxbridge Really Is For Everyone’

Reproduced from the Huffington Post:

With the UCAS deadline for Oxford and Cambridge Universities approaching, most prospective applicants will by now have revved up their engines: over the next two months they will sit rigorous tests, struggle through the self-consciously intellectual books listed on their personal statements and prepare for the infamous Oxbridge interviews (which are nearly always an anti-climax).


A big-bunch of A-level students however, despite being predicted a flurry of ‘A’ and ‘A*’ grades, will watch the deadline come and go – because ‘Oxbridge isn’t for everyone’, right?

Tosh. You have to be fairly smart, though to demonstrate an ‘inquiring’ character is really the clincher. And of course it’s competitive – which means that you might not get in even if you do possess the academic talent in spades.

But to suggest, as Owen Jones did last year in a typically conciliatory article, ‘Abolish Oxbridge’, that applicants without a middle-class upbringing are unable to shine at interview is both patronising to those young people, and insulting to the intelligence of tutors.

And of course we all remember Elly Nowell, the aspirant lawyer whose parodying rejection letter to Magdalen College, Oxford, hit headlines earlier this year. In a subsequent Guardian op-ed she complained “If you’re achieving high grades at A-level (or equivalent) you can feel quite a lot of pressure to “prove yourself” by getting an Oxbridge offer”. The ancient buildings and interview rooms were “intimidating” for kids who’ve “grown up on benefits on council estates”. I don’t wish to call Elly a liar, but is this young woman – wholly prepared to thrust herself into the national spotlight – really that terrified by the elegant stone masonry of Magdalen? Or is she cynically playing up to the metropolitan liberal stereotypes of what it means to be working-class at Oxbridge?

The truth is that Elly would have thrived at Oxford – whether she was the shy yet bright woman she presented herself as, or the confident go-getter we really know her to be. Ed Cumming, a Cambridge graduate on the Telegraph, is right when he says “College Life rewards joiners-in.” There are countless clubs, societies and niche groupings to immerse yourself in. What the universities of London, Leeds and Manchester have in size – Oxbridge makes up for in richness and variety.

And no, that isn’t alluding to the port-sodden debauchery of the Oxford Conservative Association – a fairly crude stereotype the BBC does its best to keep alive. The closest most undergraduates come to re-living the Edwardian Era is watching Downton Abbey on a dodgy cable connection in the JCR.

The collegiate system makes Oxford and Cambridge two of the warmest and most supportive student environments anywhere. It’s difficult to eke out a reclusive existence – even if you want one – with social, academic, catering and living spaces all integrated into the same place. By contrast my friends at other universities – ones supposedly renowned for their nightlife – often find themselves lonely and anonymous, tucked away in a quiet corner of some 70s accommodation block.

My own story is emphatically not one of deprivation. Both my parents went to university. So perhaps I cannot invest the same emotional energy into dispelling Oxbridge myths that others, Elly Nowell say, put into perpetuating them. All I can do is lay out the facts as I see them, describing how unstuffy and accommodating Oxford appears to me. Where pockets of cliquish behaviour exist, they are ridiculed by people who – largely through the Oxbridge experience – have become smart and self-assured enough to know better.

The tragedy of the ‘Oxbridge isn’t for you’ message is its threat to become a self-flufilling prophecy. Fortunately the converse is also true: heroic efforts by the Sutton Trust, as well as Oxford and Cambridge themselves, have finally started to bring state school admissions into line with where it should be. The facts, I hope, will start to drown out the voices of those who self-righteously stand against Oxbridge – unwittingly alienating the very people Oxford and Cambridge need to broaden their intake.


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