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If Oxford shrugs

The inside story of how England’s oldest university picks its students, and the perils it faces if it fails to reach out beyond the old elite

The opening scene of the latest Abba jukebox musical, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, is set in one of Oxford University’s ancient panelled dining halls. Lily James is, in flashback, the young Donna, graduating from New College (founded in 1379). In place of a speech she rips into a raunchy rendering of “When I Kissed the Teacher”, which soon has even the vice chancellor (Celia Imrie) casting offher inhibitions to join in.

The Oxford backdrop (a scene co-written by Richard Curtis, Christ Church) is entirely gratuitous. Donna’s Oxford education is irrelevant to the rest of the movie, which mainly takes place on the Aegean island of “Kalokairi.” But Oxford is—as in Inspector Morse or Brideshead Revisited—an internationally recognisable brand. It is the essence of England—as classic, in its own way, as Aston Martin or Burberry.

It also signifies exclusivity and elitism. Every year more than 18,000 young people apply to follow Donna through the ivy-clad doorways, but only 3,200 make it. Of these, just 2,600 live in the UK. In numerical terms, an Oxford education is always going to be for the few, not the many. The question of who gets to be among the small number of undergraduates admitted is a topic of ever-consuming interest—and, whatever the answer, some will likely see it as a symbol of unacceptable privilege.

A place at Oxford matters beyond symbolism. The badge of an Oxbridge degree will, on past form, take you far. Three quarters of our judges; nearly two thirds of our permanent secretaries; half our diplomats and newspaper columnists went to Oxford or Cambridge, along with a third of BBC executives; a quarter of all MPs, and nearly 40 per cent of the House of Lords. All compared with less than one per cent of the UK public as a whole. No wonder there is a long queue at the door.

But who gets through? The recent release of data on Oxford admissions pulled back the curtain on the choices individual colleges and faculties make, and fed familiar criticisms about the social and ethnic slant. One of the university’s most persistent critics, Tottenham MP and a former higher education minister David Lammy, bluntly summed up his view of the tables: “Oxford is a bastion of entrenched, wealthy, upperclass, white, southern privilege”, he tweeted in May. The university had to apologise after retweeting someone who described the MP as “bitter”, with its head of public affairs, Ceri Thomas, quick to signal a retreat: “We agree with you that Oxford needs to do more and criticism of us is no sign of bitterness.” That PR retreat is, perhaps, a sign that Oxford knows in its heart that there is a danger in simply dismissing the critics.


The mood of these post-financial crash times is, after all, a populist one. The financial resources of Oxford, or perhaps more precisely parts of Oxford, are envied by many universities. But for all universities—Oxford very much included—politics can soon impinge on the most critical sources of revenue, in relation to both research and teaching. The seeming independent financial security that many within the university sector felt they had achieved with the student fee-and-loans system today looks much less assured. Last year, Labour snatched unlikely university seats such as Canterbury by vowing to abolish the scheme, and the Conservatives have since moved towards reviewing aspects of it. No university can afford to completely ignore what politicians or the voters think, and an elite university such as Oxford might do especially well to be sensitive to how it would, without reform, fare under a future Jeremy Corbyn government.

The complacent caricature

Iwrite this piece wearing two hats. I’m a journalist with a lifetime’s experience on the outside, but I arrived in Oxford three years ago to become the head of one of the 33 undergraduate colleges, Lady Margaret Hall (LMH). Few people in any conversation about the English education system can claim to bring no baggage and perhaps I should acknowledge mine: an 11-plus failure who would have ended up at a secondary modern had my parents not made significant sacrifices to send me to what might be considered a middling private school. From there I made it to Cambridge, which I most certainly would not have done had I gone to the local secondary modern. In many ways I am a privileged person who has lived a privileged life.

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In Prospect’s October issue: Rafael Behr argues that politics has been poisoned by Twitter—the platform often drives the political news agenda, encourages people to descend deeper and deeper into echo chambers and sees MPs and their families regularly abused. Meanwhile, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger explains how Oxford picks its students and says that more needs to be done for the colleges to be more inclusive. Also, Jasmin Mujanovic outlines how Bosnia’s elections this month could tip the country back into conflict. Elsewhere in the issue: Alex Dean highlights the alarming decline in the number of students studying a foreign language at GCSE and beyond. Will Self reviews a series of new books about liberalism, arguing that “we need more than just social freedoms and the free market.” Aimee Cliff charts the story of the dying dream that London would be a 24-hour city.