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Oxbridge should just leave the state system

April 13th, 2011 Posted in education, Social Mobility by

For Oxford and Cambridge there is a very simple solution to the issue of political interference in their admissions processes, leave the state system.

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s interventions this week, claiming race and income discrimination on the part of elite universities, are so evidence-free and infantile they barely merit comment.

Suffice to say the spectacle of the Coalition’s leading Oxbridge-educated figures behaving like socialist worker leaflet pushers ranting about social justice, is unlikely to inspire many youngsters that the route to success involves making a thoughtful case based on evidence. Something they teach in elite universities.

Access to selective education should be based on merit, and that’s all there is to it. What merit means should be up to the institution concerned, whether by competitive examination or interviews to root out untrained potential.

If groups are under-represented or failing to compete for places at age 18 is not the fault of the institutions concerned. Nor is it their role to correct it. All that means is denying someone who deserves a place on the grounds of ability, in order to give it someone less able who fills a quota.

That is not ‘fair’.

Nor is there any way of sensibly determining what a fair distribution of opportunity looks like. What ratio of children from Richmond to Barnsley attending Cambridge represents success in the mind of the DPM? 

Further the whole thrust of Liberal Democrat education thinking in the last decade has been that early intervention matters far more than late. That is point of the pupil premium. University access codes are in that regard are unlikely to be either effective or good value for money. 

But this is a tiresome debate. Politicians are politically motivated, such interference and nudges will continue so long as politicians run universities. The politics in this case concern promoting the absurd tuition fees compromise that is supposed to link price to pro-poor tokenism rather than supply and demand.

The threat made then is ‘do something about this or lose public money’.

Oxford and Cambridge should call their bluff.

The UK’s two best universities should not struggle to thrive in the private sector. Fees would rise, but then so would bursary schemes to offset the impact on those without the means to pay, revenue from venture research, and private sector sponsorship. Alternate private sector loan systems would emerge to facilitate payment, many less expensive than the RPI+3% charges in the government’s pseudo-graduate tax.

7 Responses to “Oxbridge should just leave the state system”

  1. Frank Little Says:

    Fees would rise, but then so would bursary schemes

    It seems to me that UK universities are not half as assiduous as those across the pond in garnering donations to support bursaries.

  2. Tabman Says:

    Frank, that is correct – but then it’s partly due to the UK culture of “the State picks up the slack”. I for one would be more likely to donate to such schemes if my donation was the only means of such schemes existing.

  3. Mike Says:

    While there has been too much focus on ‘social mobility’ beginning at University, Mr. Mayer’s piece brings up an interesting point that I have to disagree with: that the children going to better schools, and getting better grades are inherently more able than those who go to often poor schools and do not achieve the same results.

    Our system of working out who is more ‘able’ is ridiculous. It is blatant that you can essentially purchase the scholarly qualifications required to get into the best universities at private schools. Schools which have smaller class sizes, employ better teachers, have a far better educational ethos and culture, and can farm out trouble-making students get better results; this is not a surprise. Does it make the children more able than those who attend schools that have none of these options? No, no it doesn’t.

    That said, the article is right that this system is not the fault of Universities, and they should not be the ones expected to solve it.

  4. Tabman Says:

    Mike – Andy Mayer goes on to say “What merit means should be up to the institution concerned, whether by competitive examination or interviews to root out untrained potential.”

    Oxbridge already makes allowances for the failures of the Comprehensive system. They should be free to accept whomever they choose.

  5. Mike Says:

    The failures of the comprehensive system are certainly not the fault of universities: I resent Cameron and Clegg acting as if they are. They are the fault of governing parties over decades.

    That said, they are also children and as a someone who reads Liberal Vision out of interest rather than conviction that its judgements are always correct, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of universities being freed entirely from government.

  6. Jack Hughes Says:


    Private schools do a better job with a child – that’s what parents pay for.

    How would you “adjust” A-level exam results to remove this “unfair” advantage?

    And isn’t this just an admission of defeat for state education?

  7. Mike Says:

    It certainly is: I don’t know who is alleging that state education has not been ‘defeated’, especially if it’s fighting private education.