Whatevs the fuck #1: Oxbridge

cambridge elitism

In the ‘40s, Orwell had a column in Tribune called ‘As I Please’. He used it to write about whatever the hell he liked. This is my vulgar, flippant twenty-first century version – not that I’m a patch on Orwell.

Every now and then, the media will fuss about Oxbridge. Usually it’s in response to some new set of figures that show it’s (still) excruciatingly privileged.

Everyone will broadly agree that’s bad, there’ll be a flurry of public outrage for about ten minutes, you’ll see a bit of back-and-forth in the broadsheet opinion pages, then the issue will vanish. Nothing will change.

We went through one of those micro-furores a month or so back. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, dug up figures showing that, among other things:

Each year between 2010 and 2015, 13 Oxford colleges didn’t give an offer to a single black applicant. A quarter of Cambridge colleges didn’t either.

Cambridge made more offers to applicants from four of the Home Counties than the entirety of the North between 2010 and 2015.

Oxbridge applicants from the top two social classes (presumably A and B in the Approximated Social Grade system the government uses) rose from 79% in 2010 to 82% (Ox) and 81% (Cam) in 2015.

This is all disgusting, and Lammy was obviously right to bring attention to it.

But he and virtually all the other liberal-centrist Guardian types now piling in on the issue come from the same starting point: Oxbridge is a force for good, and as many people as possible should go there.

In fact, it’s awful, and both Oxford and Cambridge should be shut down.

I went to Cambridge from 2009 to 2012 and mostly hated it. I didn’t want to go, but the rampantly commercial FE college where I did my A-Levels twisted my arm.

Already highly successful, it was trying to fully transcend the stigma of being in – what was routinely written off as – a dead-end post-industrial town full of deprivation. In practice, that meant becoming somewhere posh rural out-of-towners could come and do their International Baccalaureates.

Getting students into Oxbridge was a great way of doing that. And because I was the son of a single mother from one of the most impoverished places in the West Country, I had especially good PR potential.

Looking back, I wish I’d had the balls to refuse. But I’d do anything for a quiet life – and to appease my nice lecturers, and get the not-so-nice dead-eyed management types off my back, I gritted my teeth and applied for the most un-Cambridge-looking Cambridge college I could find.

At no stage did I think I had any chance of getting in. Then I did get in. I wanted to turn it down – I fancied Bristol or Exeter instead. But literally everyone I knew said it was a life-changing opportunity I’d be stupid to pass up – so, eventually, reluctantly, I accepted.

I spent the next three years of my life in Cambridge. It was not hell. There were some nice people there. I sometimes studied interesting things. I was preposterously lucky to have my existence subsidised by loans and fat bursaries for three years straight.

And I can’t deny that it developed me as a human being. The workload was intense – but I left the place a much more confident, competent, mentally agile person than I was going in.

On the whole, though, I loathed it – for all the reasons you’d expect an embittered far-left provincial with hair shirt-leanings to loathe it. The wealth. The elitism. The excess. The lack of diversity. The profound, maddening detachment from reality.

On the surface, Cambridge just looks baffling and sad. It’s culturally located somewhere between the 1850s, the 1950s, Hogwarts and a medieval monastery. The vibe’s eerily pre-pubescent – almost Blytonesque with its jolly hockey sticks lingo (parties are ‘bops’, college cafes are ‘butteries’, cleaners are ‘bedders’), and endless procession of prudish, cripplingly sheltered Home Counties high achievers.

Most of the students I met there weren’t interested in the big issues facing humanity. They were more interested when the next bop was. Past-times were trivial – rowing, rugby, amateur dramatics. There were student papers, but they were just glorified gossip rags. The biggest thing in a lot of their lives was the May Ball – the nauseatingly lavish end-of-year bash each college puts on, and that can cost anywhere up to £500 a ticket.

More than anything else, it felt like one giant, posh boarding school – which fits, because that’s where a lot of the people that go there have come from.

But that makes it sound harmless. Pitiful, but harmless. In reality, it’s utterly toxic.

Cambridge isn’t just a symbol of social apartheid – it actively enforces and sustains social apartheid. For 700-odd years, by definition a Cambridge student was a white, Protestant son of the ruling class. Over the last hundred, that definition has broadened, just a bit. But its intake is still mostly white, grossly skewed in favour of the 3% who go to private schools, and overwhelmingly rich.

Every October, thousands of rich white kids from rich white areas of the country, who went to rich white schools, and, stunningly, have never seriously mixed with anyone who isn’t demographically identical themselves, hit Oxbridge.

It’s university – supposedly the mind-broadening, perspective-shifting bit of life, and the biggest pond they’ve ever swum in. But what do they find there? Certainly nothing challenging or uncomfortable – nothing that causes them to sit up, take notice, and reassess society and their privilege placed within it.

Instead, they find a place full of people exactly like them. These are kids from the wealthiest households in the country – sired by parents earning double, triple, or some other gross multiple of the average income. And coming to Oxbridge normalises that immense, disgusting privilege.

It’s wrong to be that rich. We’re living in a society where cancer patients are forced to work to get benefits. Disabled people are crawling around on the floor because the state’s taken their wheelchairs away. Further afield, tens of thousands of people die every day for want of a bit of rice.

But Oxbridge presents it as normal. A tiny, super-privileged bit of the population is allowed to delude itself into thinking it’s infinitely more representative than it actually is. They’re filled with undue confidence that they ‘get’ society, that there’s not much wrong with it, and that whatever problems it does have aren’t anything to do with them.

Why does that matter? It matters because these are the people who go on to become the politicians, the bankers, the diplomats, the bureaucrats, the journalists and the business elites who, more than anyone else, decide the direction society travels in.

Some won’t. Some will go on to be doctors and teachers and do something socially useful. But others will. They will rule us. And that privilege, that insularity, that catastrophic, know-it-all arrogance, will shape how they do it.

Based on what I saw over three years at Cambridge, I’m convinced there’s an unbridgeable gulf between them and us. It’s economic, cultural, emotional and psychological – and it means they can’t ever understand or empathise with us. They’ll make long, extravagantly-paid careers in claiming they can, but they can’t.

Instead, their lives will be spent ruthlessly serving elite interests – working in politics, in government, in business, in the media –  because elites are the only people they’ve ever known and can properly humanise. Worst of all, they’ll convince themselves, and millions of others, that in doing so they’re acting in the public’s best interests too.

This all sounds very extreme – and lot of people would respond to what I’ve written so far by saying it’s all bollocks. But a second group would be broadly sympathetic.

They’d agree that Oxbridge is elitist, and that that’s very, very bad. But they’d shy away from my conclusion, which is that Oxbridge should be abolished. Instead, they’d argue that Oxford and Cambridge themselves aren’t the problem, but that private schools and social inequality are.

I mostly agree. Oxbridge doesn’t take lovely young altruists and turn them into neoliberal sociopaths. It just finally cements a worldview that’s been gradually assembling itself since the individuals in question could first walk and talk.

If you just abolished Oxbridge and left it at that, tomorrow’s elites would go somewhere else – Durham, Bristol, St Andrews, or some other posh university.

But that’s why we need to get rid of Oxbridge and private education – and freeze the assets of anyone with over £100,000 or so in the bank and redistribute it to everybody else.

People who think that’s all a bit radical for their tastes often come back with a counter-proposal – why don’t we keep Oxbridge, and fill it with state school students instead?

I’m against that for two reasons. The first is that institutions shape the people that move through them. It can work the other way, too, but that takes much, much longer.

Suddenly decreeing that Oxbridge could only take state-educated students wouldn’t end its Oxbridgeness – the fact that for nearly a thousand years, its served to enforce and perpetuate the values system of society’s most powerful people.

Instead, you’d end up Oxbridgifying the state school kids, not dragging Oxbridge into the real world.

I’ve seen it happen. Some of the most brainwashed, insular people I met at Cambridge were state school kids from ordinary backgrounds who were more into the sub-Harry Potter schtick than the chinless wonders were.

The second is simply because Oxbridge is horrible.

Everywhere you look, there’s some symbol of exploitation, or exclusion, or both – a library that was paid for by the slave trade, or a statue of a colonial-era butcher like Cecil Rhodes.

The big old buildings tourists flock to see are quite nice, if grey and beige and grandiose are your architectural cups of tea. But think about why they were built. And how they were built. They were designed to be enclaves of a dictatorial ruling class, the world’s richest, most powerful people, at a time when most of the population were peasants living in hovels.

Think about how much they must’ve cost – and how many lives that money could’ve saved or improved. And think about the people who built those buildings. How many of them died putting up those towers? How many of them would ever have been allowed to study in them, or even visit them, once they were finished?

That’s why Oxbridge needs to go. And it wouldn’t be the colossal blow to civilisation most people would make it out to be.

You could easily replicate the best bits of an Oxbridge education elsewhere. Really it boils down to three things. One-to-one teaching (just as often by bored PhD students as world experts, in my experience, but we’ll leave to one side). A lot of challenging work. And enough financial support to mean that students can afford to focus on that work full-time. With proper funding, you could set that up anywhere.

So I say shut it down. Be nice – if students have started their degrees, let them finish. Then close it. Seize all its assets, and fund un-elitist world-class education all round the country. Turn the buildings into council flats, or offices, or warning-from-history-type museums if you like. Abolish private education. Redistribute wealth. Nationalise everything. Enjoy socialism.

As for me, I held out for three years by living as un-Cambridge existence as I could – numbing the ever-pulsating wrongness of the place with lots of pub lunches and Neil Young.

I dodged the banquets and balls and as many lectures as I could get away, got my slap-bang-in-the-middle 2:1, then ran as far away from that world as I possibly could. I’ve never gone back.

But the funny thing is, despite everything I’ve said about Cambridge, I genuinely have to stop and think hard if someone asks me, ‘would you go again?’

I hated it. But it gave me something I think might just about make up for it – an astonishing, terrifying, life-changing insight into how power and privilege reproduces itself. And I don’t think I could give that up.