Hark! Listen to the sound of hammer and chisel: there is someone chipping away at an ivory tower. It's music to liberal ears - and the prelude to a transformation of Oxford as we know it. The man who's busily dismantling the ivory tower is Guy Hands, an Oxford graduate who has launched a campaign to favour entrants to the university from state education. Hands's own college, Mansfield, aims to take three-quarters of its students from the state sector within the next five years.
Applications from the state sector (attended by more than 90 per cent of children) accounted for 47 per cent of Oxford applications last year; previous attempts to encourage more state applicants have been only moderately successful. Hands hopes to do better by concentrating on the further education colleges, where many students, particularly from the working classes, now do their A-levels. Good luck to him; but what interests me even more is his hope that the colleges will also send more mature students to Oxford. The greying of Oxford would change not only the Merchant Ivory tower rooted in people's imaginations, but society as a whole.
When I arrived at Worcester (one of the seven colleges that have joined the Hands campaign) from Washington DC about 20 years ago, I thought I'd stepped into an Evelyn Waugh theme park, replete with quaint and quiet quads, cobblestoned streets and self-conscious undergraduates. I looked in wonder at the floppy-haired effetes (Hughie Grant was at New College at the time) who cross-dressed at parties, the blossoming English roses who lounged on punts, the muscle-bound rowers who ate beefsteak for breakfast. Beneath the golden veneer of youth, the undergrads hailed from different backgrounds; and they labelled one another accordingly. There were the "dart throwers", pub-dwelling grammar or state school graduates. There were the "toffs", a term applied to any public school graduate - unless he was an "OE" (short for Old Etonian), which merited a separate category altogether. There were the "bio-chemists", shorthand (universal, if inaccurate) for northern, working-class youngsters.
These curious classifications, and the snubs they entailed, were taken with great equanimity. Undergraduates knew that, if they lost these insignificant battles of social exclusion, they would win the war: an Oxford MA was a passport to the top. As they stood in the cloisters or by the Cherwell, they looked in control of their destiny, a throng of apple-cheeked youngsters ready to belt out "Tomorrow Belongs to Me".
This vision of Brideshead youth will be no more if Mansfield carries out its plans. Oxford will have to accommodate white-haired women knitting bedsocks as they work out their essay structure; and paunch-laden, middle-aged men downing pints as they pore over The Faerie Queene. Sebastian Flyte lookalikes, with a teddy bear under their arm, will make way for Germaine Greer doppelgangers, their spectacles on a chain.
But the mature students will influence not only the way Oxford looks; they will colour the tone of undergraduate life. The arrogance of youth will henceforth be tempered by men and women who have experienced real life and its hard knocks. Men and women who've grown weary of the commercial imperatives of a career will lap up the pleasures of learning for learning's sake - and warn their younger counterparts against adopting a tunnel-vision, job-centred approach to life. Mature students who have returned to education after being made redundant at work will issue warnings about uncertainties and curb the youthful enthusiasm of the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed ones.
Oxford, in short, will be injected with realism, while the rest of society will have more dreamers - older men and women who pine for afternoons in the Bodleian, and evenings on the banks of the Cherwell, their vision of reality softened by their recent taste of undergraduate life, or by the sweet knowledge that the very best in education is no longer the preserve of the young.