The Bemolution recently stumbled across this old article by consistently excellent Owen Jones that calls for the abolition of Oxbridge. To step out of character for a minute, my own experiences as a state-educated hick somehow ending up at Cambridge lead me to the exact same conclusion.
Oxford and Cambridge are archaic little crevices in which privilege, self-assumed superiority and detachment from reality are allowed to fester. Toppling Oxbridge wouldn’t eradicate the inequality that’s already unacceptably massive and still growing, but it would be a vital part of any serious egalitarian advance on all fronts.
That said, I think Jones is actually too generous about Oxbridge in his piece. There is absolutely no doubt that Oxbridge educations are of a very high standard. But I think it’s a mistake to assume – as so many do – that this is the result of its all-surpassing teaching methods, world-beating curriculums, or something inherently superior about its olde-worlde aesthetic, ethos, and general outlook.
The consensus among most of the people I met at Cambridge was that the general standard of teaching was mediocre at best. Jones fondly recalls his debt to some ‘fantastic tutors’ while at Oxford, and both the Ox and the Bridge undoubtedly boast some fine educators. But after three years at the latter, I genuinely don’t believe that the number of them you find at England’s two oldest universities is any bigger than it is at a lot of others.
Supervisions, the one-to-one teaching method that supposedly sets Oxbridge apart from hoi-polloi institutions, frequently just involve having information robotically regurgitated in your general direction for sixty minutes. Certainly, having been through the system, it’s very surreal to see tutelage that’s often fairly bog-standard be praised to the heavens as some kind of magnificent pillar of civilisation.
What Oxbridge unarguably excels at is understanding its core demographic. As Jones duly notes, real efforts have been made to extend participation – god knows, somehow they let me in – with reasonable success. But the 7% of students who are privately educated remain horrendously over-represented, and, more to the point, over hundreds of years the system has been shaped around people like them.
Private schools don’t get better exam results than state institutions because they’re inherently better. They do so because the children with families who can afford to send them there are usually highly competitive, individualistic, compliant and, above all else, impeccably well-resourced.
They’re also taught that to do well academically is extremely important. For a lot of people, it is – but worryingly often, I found individuals who’d become neurotically obsessed with ‘doing well’. The amount of issue-riddled Cambridge students who just about survived by using academic achievement to gaffer-tape over the cracks was as shocking as it was deeply, deeply sad (Tanya Gold summed it up perfectly in the Guardian a few years back).
Oxbridge fits these types perfectly. Essentially, it provides them with an environment where they can dedicate their existences to ‘doing well’. They don’t have to waste precious reading time on fuelling their bodies, because food is prepared for them. They don’t have to clean up after themselves because someone does that as well – daily in some colleges. And they never have to worry about difficult landlords giving them grief, because they live in university accommodation – a nice, uncluttered, well-maintained hamster wheel to run themselves silly in. Thus installed in Oxbridge life, the student can subsume everything else in life below the eternal struggle to please their supervisor, as the unending deluge of work rolls in.
As an education, it’s very very effective. The workload is neverending, and for a great many Oxons and Cantabs it brings misery and breakdowns. But if you’re sensible, and negotiate it steadily while hanging on to some precious real-world perspective, you get a huge amount out of it. The sheer volume of material you’re presented with forces you to learn how to absorb huge quantities of information in a short space of time. It greatly increases your mental agility, and teaches you to be rigorously analytical. And I genuinely believe it just comes down to an enormous amount of work – easily the same in a term as some highly respected university courses would require in a year – in an environment that frees them of other distractions and lets them tackle it head-on.
Crucially, it’s not something inherently Oxbridge. You could take that basic model, chisel off the cod-medieval bells and whistles and the centuries of encrusted arrogance and apply it to other leading universities.
Unfortunately, though, achieving equality in education requires far more fundamental reform. Without abolishing private education, and shrinking the absurd social and economic inequality that’s been left to flourish by successive governments over the past thirty years – two huge, vital, consensus-buckling asks – the best we can hope to see is a slight rise in the number of state pupils squeaking into Oxbridge.
I left Cambridge thinking its insularity and exclusiveness – far less overt than it once was, but very much there – was socially dangerous, shaping the aloof, disdainful and terrifyingly sheltered Establishment-to-bes it produces. Until the radical social transformations needed to properly right the gross inequalities it and Oxford all too often seem to embody roll around, it’s in almost everybody’s interest to see both institutions cracked open, made available to the vast majority and transformed into something completely different, if not got rid of entirely.
Tanya Gold says as much in her article, linked above. The access-widening idea taken up by the Bemolutionary favourite George Monbiot that Jones mentions originally came from ex-New Statesman editor Peter Wilby. Monbiot nicely explains it – and the ways politicos continue to ignore it – here.