I recently published an article for the Guardian’s ‘Comment is free’ section, making the case for the introduction of Oxbridge colleges exclusively for students from state school backgrounds. Collected below are the full responses to questions put to me by undergraduates Basha Wells-Dion and Jack May for TCS, and by Daniel Baker for a piece for Cambridge News.
JM: “Why do you think the article has had such a divisive response?”
I suppose it’s because a lot of people, especially people who already study or teach at Oxbridge, have a lot invested in the status quo (much as they might make noises, from time to time, about the need for change). People who themselves went to a private school, or who send their children to private schools, are likely to react defensively for obvious reasons: what’s at issue here is an attack on a system from which they have benefited. Some people who went to state schools and are now at Oxbridge can slip into the trap of thinking that because they made it, the system can’t be as bad as all that. But the people who might have liked to study at Oxbridge, but were put off applying, or were rejected in favour of students who had enjoyed far greater advantages, might well feel differently.
Others are genuinely worried that a move like this would be patronising, or that it would be counterproductive because of the stigma or backlash it would be likely to attract. I don’t see it as patronising in the least. The point is just that we shouldn’t be supporting and rewarding a system which gives huge advantages to those who happen to have been bought an expensive education. Attempts to criticise or remedy oppression or inequality or injustice are invariably accused of being patronising: it’s par for the course. The same goes for the claim that it would be ‘counterproductive’ to act. Any political intervention worth making will inevitably be met with attempts to stigmatise and discredit it, because vested interests are being attacked. What is the answer? Do nothing? Stick with what we’ve got? Wait? That way of arguing seems very familiar, and very convenient. It’s certainly true that a real solution to the problem of access to higher education would require more far-reaching social change, the eradication of poverty and systemic inequality in schooling. In my view, that means abolishing private schools (for a start). But what should an elite educational institution like an Oxbridge college do, here and now? Wait around for proper social change to happen, or take action?
B W-D: Have you experienced any disparity in the way state and private school students are treated at Cambridge?
I haven’t found supervisors treating state and private school students differently (though others may have different experiences), but what I think is quite pervasive is the phenomenon whereby students from private schools (or who appear to be from private schools – sometimes appearances are misleading of course) dominate in seminar and lecture settings or group supervisions. A great amount of individual variation notwithstanding, levels of confidence and the sense of entitlement are both gendered and classed. And that’s a problem that is self-perpetuating: when a privately educated white male speaks at length and with an air of confidence in a seminar, this can have a demoralising effect on others present. You think, “He must know what he’s talking about” – what he’s saying might not seem to you to make a lot of sense, but you think, “maybe that’s because I’m too stupid to understand it”. I certainly struggled with that. Even when you don’t really believe, on an intellectual level, that the difference in confidence is really warranted or grounded in anything, it’s very difficult not to let that have an effect on the way you feel. You can end up less able to contribute, less motivated to work, or just unwilling to engage in a game that you feel kind of assaulted by. This goes for many women from all backgrounds, as well as those of all genders from state schools. Of course, there are people who say, “I’ll show them…” – a lot of factors influence whether that reaction is really possible for a person. But the point is that they shouldn’t have to be put in that situation in the first place, just because of their gender or the kind of school they went to.
JM: “Just to clarify, would you rather see existing colleges stop accepting private school students, or found new colleges exclusively designed for state school students?”
In the article, I left it an open question whether new colleges should be founded, or whether existing colleges should ‘go state’. But the latter seems to me the more feasible option. It also avoids the problem that a new state-only college might be seen as a kind of gimmick. Existing colleges already have their resources and reputations and identities – and some colleges present themselves as taking a strong stand on issues of social justice and as being particularly welcoming to students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds. There’s often a bit of gap between the image and the reality. But there is a simple way for a college to show it is really serious about access: it could stop admitting students from private school backgrounds, who are dramatically over-represented already, and concentrate on the 93 percent of the population of kids who go to state schools.
Either way, in order to work, the scheme would need to be well publicised and transparent. It would also have to be accompanied by a serious push in terms of supporting students financially and relieving the burden of debt. It’s all very well to get more state school students into elite universities, but nobody should have to graduate with 60K of debt. A state school only college would inevitably be controversial, and would turn off some potential donors, but it could also impress and attract many others who care about access. Elite institutions have a responsibility both to keep raising the necessary funds to support students during their studies, and also to use their position of privilege and influence to put pressure on the Government and to side with the tens of thousands of students who are still fighting for free education.
DB: To what extent would this reverse the current drop in state school admissions?
That would of course depend on the scale and manner of implementation, but having even a single state-only college could make quite a substantial difference. A bold, public move like this might also encourage people to apply who wouldn’t otherwise have done so.
DB: Would state school students be happy to go to an exclusive college or would it be just the same as ‘going to Oxbridge’ full stop?
Whether implemented by founding new colleges or by changing the admissions procedures of existing ones, state school only Oxbridge colleges would still be Oxbridge colleges (just as the women’s colleges in Cambridge are). As to whether state school pupils would want to go to them, that is up to them, but I imagine that the existence of a college which recruited only from the state sector would have the effect of encouraging state school students to apply rather than putting them off. They could still apply to other colleges, of course. Nobody is suggesting a system of segregation, with some colleges for the private schools and others for the rest. There might actually be some benefit, analogous to the women’s colleges, in providing a space within elite institutions where state school students can be with other state school students. Private school confidence is a real phenomenon, and it can be not only irritating but also detrimental to those who are trying to learn and live in an environment where it pervades the atmosphere. Some state school pupils might value that, others not. But that’s not the main point of the idea. The aim would be to improve state school representation across the board, and to acknowledge that Oxbridge still has a serious problem.
B W-D: Do you think that physically dividing state and private school students might perpetuate the problem of inequality?
First, I’m not suggesting separating them: if some colleges stopped recruiting from private schools, the idea is not that the others would stop recruiting from state schools – that would obviously be a disaster from the point of view of access. And people see people from other colleges, too, so even those attending a state school only college would not be denied the privilege of mixing with the 7%, as it were.
Equally importantly, though, I think it’s a mistake to think of social equality as a matter of getting people from very privileged backgrounds to mix with people from more ordinary backgrounds. What should motivate us are problems of disadvantage and access, not issues of relations between private and state educated people. It’s not a matter of good relations. And nor is ‘social mobility’ really the right way to think about it. Social mobility assumes that there is a certain social and economic hierarchy, and the aim is to get people to move up and down within that hierarchy more freely and ‘fairly’. A better way to look at it would be to acknowledge that the hierarchy itself is a problem. And that places like Oxbridge are part of the apparatus that maintains it. They may shuffle some people up and down within it – though not to the extent they would like to claim – but they don’t threaten the structure itself.
A little bit of social mobility is good for hierarchy. It helps it persist, and to present itself as legitimate or ‘fair’. But ‘too much’ social mobility, and the system is put under strain. If, for example, the whole of Oxbridge decided to phase out private school students – almost unimaginable at present – many parents would stop sending their children to private schools, and they would have to close down or be nationalised.
B. W-D: You mention women’s colleges as a method of encouraging applications from a wider range of backgrounds, but do these college have as much of a role to play now that there is a more even balance between the genders?
I think they still have an important role. It’s important for some women – if not all – to have a space where they can be without men. And it’s worth bearing in mind that the numbers of women and men in the Cambridge undergraduate population are still not quite equal, even despite the existence of three women-only colleges.
In the case of women, the main motive for having their own colleges is not making up the numbers at the undergraduate level, though. It’s about creating an atmosphere where they have a better chance of flourishing and being successful, both during their undergraduate careers and afterward (there is an alarming drop-off in female representation at the post-grad level and beyond; something similar may well be true for lower socio-economic groups, especially given the costs of graduate study, but it is harder to get information on this since parental income is not assessed).
In the case of state school students, the reasons are parallel to some extent – this is where what I was saying about confidence levels is relevant. People might benefit from being able to get away from that. But it’s also much more clearly about representation. State school candidates, especially those from comprehensives or working class backgrounds, just aren’t getting here. That’s a difference – a break in the analogy – but hardly one which weakens the case for a state school only college. On the contrary, it greatly strengthens it. Access to their privately educated peers is not really what many state school students need. They need better access to education, full stop.
B W-D: How have other methods of encouraging applications from state school students been successful/unsuccessful?
A lot of people put a lot of hard work into access, including many student volunteers. I don’t want to denigrate that. But they are working within a broader framework that constrains how much difference they are able to make. That’s why we have the current situation. Access initiatives have been going on for many years, and we’re still in a situation where 7% of children go to private schools and at Oxbridge it’s 39% on average. That’s still a huge disparity. Unless we really believe that private school pupils are innately that much more talented, or that at 18 it’s already too late to remedy differences in advantage – and I don’t believe either of those things, from all my experience as a student and later as a teacher at Cambridge – then we have to do something that we’re not already doing. It’s not enough to go to schools and encourage pupils to apply – much as that can be useful. Bursaries can be useful too, but they’re also probably not enough – at least at their current levels. Limiting admissions to state school candidates would cut the Gordian knot – it wouldn’t solve everything (grammar vs. comp, for example, or ethnic minority representation), but it would make a huge difference. What is really needed, of course, are radical changes to society at large: for example, in my view, there shouldn’t be an elite tier of private schools in the first place. But we have to consider what we can do from where we are. What can Cambridge colleges do, from where they are now, given that what they are doing clearly isn’t enough? Here’s something they can do.