Oxbridge: is hard work enough?

The following article recently featured in The Guardian discusses “Oxbridge: is hard work enough?”.


Listening to Michelle Obama tell a group of inner-city London schoolgirls last month that they have as much of a right to aspire to Oxbridge as anyone, it all came flooding back: the many times when I felt – or was told – that the hallowed halls of Britain’s top universities were not “for the likes of me”.

There was the time a bloke trying to chat me up in a pub in Belfast almost choked on his pint when told I went from a comprehensive in a deprived part of the city to Cambridge. “People from St Louise’s don’t go to Cambridge,” he spluttered. “They do now,” I said. Or when my teachers first suggested I apply, and I felt mortified at the prospect of going somewhere I believed would be stuffed with privileged kids who would look down on me. And then how I was so out of my depth at the interviews I was left feeling stupid and inadequate. I may have been a bright, hardworking student, but unlike my equivalents at private or selective schools, I wasn’t “groomed” to get into Oxbridge, and it showed.

I recalled the time a student from a wealthy background asked me after my arrival at Cambridge why I was there if my father hadn’t been there. And the time I was dining in “formal hall” and a revered academic told the assembled crowd how important tradition was and that colleges should do what they could to make sure “our” children attend in later years.

That was 20 years ago. Just last week a report from the OECD showed that the UK today performs poorly in an international league table showing how many disadvantaged pupils succeed “against the odds” at school. I was one of the lucky few.

As it turns out, regardless of coming from a low-income background (my father, a bricklayer, lost his job in the early years of Thatcher and never worked again), and despite being the first from my school to get to Oxbridge and the only person from my family to attend university, I loved my time at Cambridge. There may have been episodes of abject snobbery and the galling sight of over-privileged hoorays sauntering around with their whiff of entitlement – the very thing that almost put me off applying in the first place – but there was also a first-rate education, a stimulating environment and the opportunity to mix and make friends with people from right across the social spectrum.

I’d earned my place and knew that I, and others like me, had every right to be there. The problem is that having a right to go – these are public universities after all – is not the same as having an equal opportunity to go. Or, it turns out, an equal opportunity to reach the upper echelons of a profession upon leaving.

Perhaps Michelle Obama’s speech resonated because it was 20 years ago this month that I graduated. But it’s more likely due to the toxic debates around Oxbridge access and social mobility dominating the news in recent months, and the glaring absence of the voices of those of us who made it to the “elite” universities despite the heavy odds stacked against us.

So what is it like now to be one of those (still) very few students from a disadvantaged background who make it to Oxbridge? And, importantly, what, if any, difference does it make to social mobility when the numbers getting in are so small? According to the latest statistics from Oxford, just under 10% of undergraduates come from families with an annual income of less than £16,290, the level for free school meals. Research shows that the professions – particularly the upper echelons – are dominated by Oxbridge, but especially by the privately educated. What signal does that send from the outset?

For the last few weeks, I’ve been interviewing current Oxbridge students and graduates from low-income backgrounds. First, I canvassed their views on access. Second, I wanted their views on how an Oxbridge education affects social mobility. Is it a one-way ticket to the top?

On access, the universities both do extensive work in this area, but our interviewees were almost in total agreement: Oxbridge needs to do even more to reach out to children and schools in deprived areas. Everyone I spoke to was worried about the end of Aimhigher, the national scheme aimed at raising university aspirations, which officially winds up next month. New access agreements for all universities are due to be published on 11 July.

Rebecca Creamer, a student at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, describes her background as “modest”. She went to school in Failsworth, Manchester. She says the interview process intimidated her more than she expected and that when she met other candidates it “opened my eyes” to how privileged some other applicants were. It took her “ages to adjust” and she felt that the culture shock was “huge”. She also felt for a long time that she didn’t fit in, and that there was an extremely visible cohort of public school people. “Everyone else seemed to have this public school confidence”. Creamer believes some of the outreach work that is done is misdirected and more should be targeted at schools where applications to top universities are not necessarily considered. “It needs to be better concentrated on people who wouldn’t necessarily think of applying.”

Creamer says it doesn’t help that the universities defend themselves on access with a false dichotomy between “private” versus “state” school ratios (both universities point out that more than 50% of intake is now from state schools) rather than addressing the discrepancies between inner-city or underrepresented schools and selective state and public schools.

Aimee Cliff, currently at Keble College, Oxford, agrees, saying that while outreach “is always important” it is “fundamental” that those who most need it are reached.

Andy McGowan, a young carer of two disabled parents from the age of six, who got a place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 2007 and who is now an access officer at Cambridge University Students’ Union, says the image of Oxbridge as elitist still puts young people off whatever outreach is being done. “I think a big thing is not thinking it is for ‘people like me’, which is what I hear time and time again. It isn’t helped by some politicians going for the easy target and attacking Oxbridge.”

Fahim Alam, who studied law at Oxford from 2004 to 2007, goes further. He says the activity around promoting applications from poorer children including outreach and visits to colleges are mere “peripheral interventions” and “too little too late”. Too much focus being put on what the universities do, Alam argues, means that systemic problems with the wider education and social system are left unaddressed. Like others, he is adamant that the wider education system needs to improve dramatically if more youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds are to get in to university, let alone Oxbridge, both in terms of generating competitive grades and in preparing children adequately.

“Interventions [such as outreach] aren’t enough to correct a system of education which privileges some over others,” he says. “Furthermore, access is predicated on having social and cultural capital in order to navigate a way through a system that is completely alien to people from a non-traditional background.”

It is this lack of cultural and social capital – the family contacts, exposure to professional networks and carefully honed social skills – that many students and graduates believe (and researchers conclude) is the crucial missing link in the social mobility chain. Alongside issues of access, many argue it is this that directly affects the longer-term prospects and social mobility of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the few who have an elite education under their belts.

Rob Berkeley, who matriculated at Oxford in 1993 and is now head of The Runnymede Trust, encapsulated what many of those interviewed said. “I felt socially inadequate and that my life experience was far from normal,” he says, speaking of the well-connected, hyper-confident public school contingent he encountered who were consummate networkers. “There is a great deal of conspicuous wealth on show. One morning, the hunt left from outside college. These are not normal experiences.” Berkeley enjoyed his time at Oxford, thanks to the quality of education and the variety of people he met, but his experience nevertheless caused him to question the wider system.

“The problem is when these networks become the people running the country and it is clear that they have had very little contact with people who have experience of marginalisation.”

Cliff says she worries that broader inequalities in society play such an influential role in overall outcomes for students. “I do think the system is unfair sometimes. That [where you end up] is determined by where you were born.” Creamer adds that while graduates from less-well-off backgrounds probably are helped by having an Oxbridge degree, she is “unconvinced” that it is a genuine springboard to the top of the professions.

Alam, now a freelance researcher, says that the wider social problems around race, identity and poverty and how these play out in the education system and beyond deserve greater attention. The lack of “brown faces” at Oxford was a shock for Alam, but he stresses that this was only one aspect of the difficulties some young people face before, during and, crucially, after university. “Every child needs to be nurtured from a young age. Children who come from poorer or racial/ethnic minority backgrounds have so many traumas behind them and so many obstacles in front of them.”

The evidence seems to suggest that the same things which deter youngsters from less well-off backgrounds (and indeed many from families on modest incomes) from applying to Oxbridge are the same hurdles blocking their path to the top after graduation.

David Johnston, chief executive of The Social Mobility Foundation, a charity that helps young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to aim for Russell Group universities and the professions, says the impact of feeling that Oxbridge “is not for the likes of us” can’t be emphasised enough. Research among the youngsters the foundation helps found that just 14% cited financial reasons as an obstacle to Oxbridge application, but 48% said “not being for them” influenced decisions.

On top of this, Johnston argues, the lack of connections or exposure to people in the professions serves to reinforce the educational and social divide. And, he says, it is frequently the lack of long established connections as well as networking and carefully honed “social skills” that hinder young people from poorer backgrounds in entering the professions. “Children who go to public schools have connections. They tend to be groomed for Oxbridge. The top professions – law, the media, banking and finance – are the hardest to get into without connections. We are working with firms to try to change this.”

Studies by The Sutton Trust, which among other things runs summer schools for disadvantaged youngsters, reinforces Johnston’s conclusions. “Many non-privileged children still exhibit an ‘Oxbridge is not for the likes of us’ attitude”, says Lee Elliot Major, its director of policy and research. “We shouldn’t underestimate the often stereotyped perceptions of Oxbridge that persist.” The trust will publish a new study soon that shows family background is a major influence on attainment at age 15. “This underlies the fact that attainment at school drives much of the admission trends at Oxbridge.”

Elliot Major says that if young people from less-well-off backgrounds are to make their mark in professions later in life, the issue of attainment well before university has to be a priority. “Half of state school teachers said they wouldn’t advise their brightest pupils to consider Oxbridge. Advice and guidance in state schools, meanwhile, is in urgent need of reform.”

Twenty years on from my graduation, it is upsetting that many of the barriers my generation faced are so prevalent for poorer youngsters today; that they are still so underrepresented in our top universities, and that those from privileged backgrounds retain their stranglehold on the professions. Just 7% of children are privately educated, yet they account for more than half of top doctors, judges and barristers.

Would I advise young people from my background to apply to Oxbridge? Absolutely. If left unchallenged, elitism will continue. But with the best will in the world, placing the responsibility for change on individuals pushing for the top despite an education system that favours the privileged won’t cut it. While well-meaning and inspiring, Michelle Obama was wrong to say that hard work is enough. Our society is rife with inequalities. As long as these endure, too many young people will continue to see both the top universities and the top jobs as “not for the likes of me”.

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