Misunderstanding social mobility

More than half of top 100 media professionals attended private schools, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. (my contribution here is both late and following on from the intelligent commentary of others)

The comparable numbers for the civil service, Parliament and court system are little better (or even worse).

What can we do about that? Campaigners highlight some or all of the following: improve state education, strip private schools of their charitable status, abolish Oxbridge!

The most compelling critique of private schools and Oxbridge, I think, is that they endow alumni with an exclusive network of useful contacts. This elite uses the status and contacts from those elite institutions to take jobs that, in truth, others are more deserving of.

I think that’s half-right. Privately-educated Oxbridge types do benefit from an exclusive network, but in general it’s not one that they pick up at school or university. On the initial rungs of the career ladder family and neighbourhood connections count the most.

I have friends who’ve secured brilliant opportunities in leading newspapers, banks and political parties through a family member or family friend. Mostly, they did go to top private schools and universities, but had they not done so those connections would still have existed. The only difference, perhaps, is that the contact feels less embarrassed delivering the favour if the young person is clearly capable.

Conversely there are those who did attend expensive schools and elite universities but, for whatever reason, don’t have a team of well-connected professionals on stand-by to parachute them into a cushy job or internship.

The conflation arises, I think, because well-connected families in metropolitan neighbourhoods are more likely to send their children to private schools and Oxbridge. So there’s a big overlap between the well-connected and the exclusively-educated.

When David Cameron offered an internship to a neighbour’s child, in an important sense he was merely doing a good deed. Far better, for sure, than giving one to the child of a donor or an old school friend. But the material effect is much the same. And who knows whether that child was privately educated – his social connections mattered the most.

Why does this argument matter? The group we’re led to identify as unfairly privileged will be similar (though not the same) after all.

It matters because it suggests that public policy shouldn’t target institutions – schools and universities – but behaviour, specifically nepotism.

Private education and elite universities may contribute to inter-generational inequality in the long-run. But there are things we can do now to make a real difference. It could be as straightforward as simply outlawing any paid or volunteering position (exempting charities and small family companies, say) that wasn’t put out to competitive tender.

In some ways that would be messy and expensive, increasing the workload of HR departments obliged to consider many applicants for each position. But equality of opportunity isn’t just fairer – is that not reason enough to pursue it? – it should make organisations more effective as well.

There’s a good analogy I read once but can’t find the citation for now. It goes something like this: ‘we wouldn’t select today’s England football team from the children of those who played for England twenty years ago. So why would we accept precisely that for our political system, the media industry and the upper echelons of business?’  


Should High Table be abolished?

Earlier this month two students at Somerville College, Oxford, proposed a JCR motion to ban High Table – that epitome of the Oxbridge scene – which affords its guests a special status not generally offered to students themselves. The motion I understand was heavily defeated; in any case a JCR motion of course has no binding power on the college itself. The symbolism is what matters. One of those students, Sarika Sharma, makes the case for abolition in this Cherwell debate, reproduced here. I oppose. 

Sarika Sharma

At a JCR meeting at Somerville College, Olivia Arigho-Stiles and I proposed a motion for the abolition of High Table. While it was strongly rejected for mostly sentimental reasons, our case still stands. Many Somerville students actively voted in support of High Table, believing that it embodies respect for senior members of the college and a celebration of academic success. But this argument fails to take into account the damaging side-effects of this tradition.

In practice High Table elevates the senior members of a college above normal diners, in the spirit of the old feudal order. Society today broadly embraces the idea of egalitarianism, in that all human life is inherently of equal value, whatever class or creed. The High Table system is simply not appropriate for this day and age.


The exact set-up is different in each individual college: some, such as Brasenose, emphasise the division more strongly by providing better quality food and cutlery to those sitting at High Table. Other colleges like Somerville have a more informal atmosphere in hall: gowns are not worn, and the food is the same quality everywhere. Despite this, the literal elevation of High Table creates fundamental distinctions between diners, which is why I proposed the motion.

There is no doubting that the nature of academic institutions is hierarchical, but to have this asserted in a supposedly communal place of eating makes little sense. Where you ought to eat is irrelevant to your place in the hierarchy of academia, and hence high table is a wholly unnecessary act of veneration.

Respecting senior members of the college and celebrating academic achievement must find other, less offensive outlets, which do not place one group beneath another. To abolish High Table would be a simple change and is hardly a radical idea, but it would nonetheless show a strong commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and other egalitarian values between those who are eating in the college community.

Anachronism is inescapable at Oxford, and while a bit of pomp seems like nice, harmless fun, it also serves to remind us of our university’s socially elitist past.

Oxford needs and wants to improve access to students coming from diverse and under-privileged backgrounds, and this involves thinking seriously about the image it projects to the wider world.

You may be so accustomed to the Oxford bubble, its culture and its traditions, that you would not sense the way in which High Table is likely to be understood by someone from outside our university culture. Guests tend to express either awe or discomfort as they look up to High Table. It gives off a sense of superiority that is very antiquated to the point of being surreal.

Tom Beardsworth

Ok, High Table is hierarchal and old-fashioned. And yes, it’s very pleasant to be a guest at High Table and, naturally, the exclusivity of the whole affair is slightly peeving to those who aren’t invited to join it. But once you understand that the only objection of the Somerville students who proposed the JCR motion is ‘exclusivity’, their case begins to fall apart.

Unless you’re in cahoots with the anarcho-communists, you’re not going to object to exclusivity per se. Most of us are inclined to object to any society or institution that excludes people based on race or gender (though the membership policy of the Black Police Officers Association might make you think twice on that one). But few people take issue with groups that discriminate on the basis of some form of merit. The rugby team will pick the best rugby players (alas at Brasenose, I am not among them); socially, we all court friend- ships with some people, at the exclusion of others, because we find them funny, attractive and caring. And higher education of course remains ruthlessly meritocratic, as the top universities admit only those who have jumped over the requisite intellectual hurdles.

Similarly, High Table exists to confer special privilege and status on those who in college’s judgement deserve it. No doubt that judgement may at times be dodgy at best: that the late Eric Hobsbawn, the Marxist historian and Stalin apologist, held that honour at a series of Oxbridge colleges over his long life smacks me as pretty offensive. Nor would it surprise me to learn that a fair number of High Table guests are there by virtue of being mates with the Principal – just like the pre-debate dinner at the Oxford Union is packed out with the President’s cronies dining on your dollar. To suggest that not everyone at High Table deserves to be there does not stretch the bounds of credulity. The selection process, to the extent that there is one at all, is undoubtedly rigged in favour of the elderly, the decrepit, the religious and the wealthy. But that does not mean to say that the institution of High Table is inherently odious. If I may be permitted to throw out a couple of platitudes: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; mend it, don’t end it.

You may not think that the current crop of suits who enjoy High Table are particularly deserving, but in that case we should change the rules about who is entitled to dine there, rather than abolishing the practice altogether. If High Table is an anachronistic injustice, then so is Oxford and indeed, most of human society. The Somerville motion was resoundingly crushed by their eminently sensible JCR for the obvious reason that there is such a thing as achievement. Only the envious and miserable would deprive colleges of the right to laud achievement by serving something a bit fancy for dinner.

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.