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23 May 2018updated 09 Jun 2021 11:00am

The obsession with Oxbridge elitism gives other British universities a free pass

Yes, Oxford needs to be more diverse. But so do many other prestigious universities in Britain. 

By Jason Murugesu

This nation’s obsession with Oxford and Cambridge is much like our curious obsession with the royal family. It is woven into the DNA of this country and is difficult to break out of, regardless of how much it may harm us in the long-term. 

Our obsession is not helped by the national media (54 per cent of Britain’s leading journalists went to Oxbridge). The skewed coverage of these two universities effectively allows every other university a free pass.

The latest reports on Oxford’s shockingly low acceptance rate of black students deserves attention. However, tweets by journalists “disappointed” in their former college may inadvertently contribute to the idea that it is only Oxbridge that has a diversity problem. 

The truth is that all research-intensive universities are still the preserve of the middle class. 

For example, Durham University has one of the largest privately-educated cohorts in the country, at 37 percent – when just seven per cent of the country is privately educated. University College London’s student body is 32 per cent privately educated. 

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State school intakes, of course, include highly selective schools and grammar schools. Anecdotally at least, I have found London’s grammar schools to be far more homogenous and white than London’s private schools, which can afford large bursaries to fund the education of clever lower income students from more deprived areas. 

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Take the aforementioned UCL, where 68 per cent of students are state school educated. In fact, only three per cent come from “low participation neighbourhoods.” 

Universities have to publicly declare student education statistics and make pledges as to how they will improve them every year (via the so called “Access Agreement”). Yet this easily accessible information is so under-reported. 

For the most part, universities increase participation by funding bursaries or summer schools for disadvantaged children (so that they are more likely to consider higher education a realistic possibility). Some universities like UCL split their widening participation budget (about £26m) between the two, whereas Imperial spends most of its similar budget on bursaries. Why is there no reporting as to how successful each approach has been?

Measures which count the number of black and ethnic minority students also disguise the lack of black students in particular at these elite institutions, as today’s reports about Oxford made evident. As of 2016, roughly a quarter of Manchester’s student body was BME, but only four per cent of that student body was black.  

If the higher education sector could learn from universities sharing their successes and failures, there is another reason to monitor the Russell Group universities as a whole. 

For while Oxford and Cambridge may be the universities imprinted on the nation’s public consciousness, they are not the future of higher education in Britain. 

Higher education will be modelled on the likes of UCL and Manchester, which are both undergoing massive changes as they rise in the world rankings. UCL is far outstripping Oxbridge in its attempt to increase student numbers (and student fee income). Wouldn’t we be asking questions if Oxbridge were doing the same? Would there more coverage if Oxbridge were planning a £1.25bn expansion that was not backed by its academics, like UCL? 

Lecturers have personally shown me charts and graphs illustrating how more students are taking certain modules each year and how teaching budgets have remained stagnant. They have explained that had I taken this same module five years ago, I would have been given more essays, more seminars and more lab time (as there were fewer students to teach and more time to spend with each student). 

Higher education in Britain is currently on the path that will lead to its Americanisation: it is becoming less personal and more commercialised. This summer’s lecturer strikes over pensions are emblematic of the fight for what the university of tomorrow will look like. Oxford and Cambridge do not have this problem, thanks to endowments worth billions.

Giving Oxbridge such coverage at the expense of all these other equally influential universities is doing the public a disservice. It contributes further to the idea that Oxford and Cambridge are the only universities that matter in Britain. Meanwhile, similarly elite institutions get a free pass.

After all the next prime minister is still likely to come from Oxbridge, but as for the next Mark Zuckerberg? I’d keep an eye on those science geeks from Imperial.