Dreaming spires for all? Oxbridge and social mobility

Saturday 29 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Students' Union

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are widely considered the best in Britain: an Oxbridge education implies membership of an intellectual elite. But many believe the elitism of Oxbridge is more than a matter of academic excellence. Almost half of students at Oxbridge have been privately educated, a privilege enjoyed by only 7% of all pupils. Earlier this year, the Sutton Report revealed that just five elite schools sent more students to Oxbridge over a three year period than 2000 other UK schools combined. A recent government report on social mobility, ‘Opening Doors’, noted that fewer than a hundred of the least privileged schoolchildren (the almost one in five eligible for free school meals) make it to Oxbridge each year. So are our top universities responsible for reproducing a social elite while excluding those from more humble backgrounds, thus entrenching inequality?

Social mobility is now a major concern for all three major parties, and the coalition government – dominated by Oxbridge graduates – is keen to remove perceived barriers to upward mobility. Universities minister David Willetts wants universities to favour candidates from state schools and disadvantaged backgrounds, and this priority is reflected in higher education funding reforms. David Cameron has openly accused Oxbridge of elitism, and caused a stir when he lamented that Oxford accepted only one black student in 2009 (though this turned out to be misleading). The universities themselves insist they are doing all they can to encourage less privileged school leavers to apply, pointing out that they can’t be held responsible for those pupils’ relative underachievement at school. So is Oxbridge being made to shoulder the blame for the shortcomings of the state education system? Or, as some critics contend, do superficial efforts at outreach mask more insidious form of exclusion? A recent study argues Cambridge’s ‘formal hall’, in which students dress up in gowns to be served by waiters and learn which way to pass the port, serves to maintain the British class system. Some argue the whole culture of Oxbridge sends a message that certain people are not welcome.

Others, like Pam Tatlow of the university thinktank million+, argue the obsession with getting a few students from poorer backgrounds into Oxbridge only reinforces the idea that only elite universities are worth going to, denigrating the newer universities and their students. Meanwhile, NUS President Liam Burns suggests we stop seeing universities as centres of knowledge, and reconceive them as vehicles of social mobility. So should access to university mean access to a challenging higher education, or simply the credentials necessary to get ahead? Is it possible to maintain academic excellence while opening the doors to more students on the basis of their lower socio-economic backgrounds?  More fundamentally, is higher education really the key to social mobility? Or is this an unfair burden on institutions already bending over backwards to enrol less advantaged students? Should we look instead to schools, or elsewhere in society?

Richard Partington
senior tutor, Churchill College, University of Cambridge

David Perks
founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory

Jacob Reynolds
consultant, SHM Productions

Wes Streeting
head of education, Stonewall; former president, NUS

Kevin Rooney
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Produced by
David Perks founder and principal, East London Science School; director, the Physics Factory
Kevin Rooney politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?
Recommended readings
Dreaming spires for all? Only if we face up to some hard truths

There’s a fundamental problem at the heart of our education system: private schools educate around 7% of students yet account for 44.6% of students at Oxford.

Jacob Reynolds, Independent, 5 November 2011

A philistine defence of the university

They’re more than happy to fight a fantasy left-wing crusade against the ‘ConDem’ government, yet defenders of higher education lack a sense of what they're actually defending.

Tim Black, spiked, September 2011

AC Grayling has caricatured British universities. No wonder they're fuming

The New College of Humanities founder has exposed higher education as a luxury consumable for the middle classes

Simon Jenkins, Guardian, 10 June 2011

Why social mobility should start at school

Higher university fees and the end of the EMA grant were already deterring poorer teenagers from continuing their education. Now the English Baccalaureate could be the final straw, argues John Dunford

John Dunford, Independent, 15 April 2011

Ron Dearing lecture: Universities and Social Mobility

Social mobility is at the heart of the Government's agenda. That is why Michael Gove is reforming our schools, why Iain Duncan Smith is making work pay for everyone, why Nick Clegg will shortly publish a cross-government social mobility strategy setting out our plans. Universities must be part of this.

David Willetts, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 17 February 2011

The Idea of a University

From 1854, for a period of five years, Newman was rector of the newly founded Catholic University of Ireland (now University College Dublin), and during that time he delivered lectures that were later published as The Idea of a University -- surely the most serene and beautiful vindication that we have of the old ideal of the scholarly life.

Roger Scruton, American Spectator, September 2010

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