Admissions of Innocence

How Labour hates our ancient universities! There they are, acting as though their responsibility were to observe age-old standards and values of higher learning, when in the government’s eyes the proper function of a university is to assist modernising processes of social redistribution.

Academia Counterpoints Education Political Correctness UK Politics

How Labour hates our ancient universities! There they are, acting as though their responsibility were to observe age-old standards and values of higher learning, when in the government’s eyes the proper function of a university is to assist modernising processes of social redistribution.

One of Labour’s favourite words for the poor showing of candidates from low socio-economic groups in Oxbridge admissions is “scandal”. In 2000 Gordon Brown, getting his facts wrong, railed at the “absolute scandal” that denied a place at Oxford to Laura Spence, a candidate from the north-east. The MP David Taylor recently asked in the Commons, “What urgent action is planned to tackle that scandalous social stasis, whereby many thousands of able, working-class students are being pushed out by the sharp elbows and deep pockets of the well-to-do?”

Another favourite word is “classy”. Clare Short, while a Cabinet minister, hissed at “classy, elitist universities”. Her phrase, by aligning intellectual quality with social privilege, summarises the change that has come over Labour since the 1960s. Until then the party, while it rightly aimed to broaden social access to higher education, respected its content and its standards. Now it sees university education solely as a social commodity, to be spread as widely as possible. If universities insist on selecting candidates on the basis of intellectual promise, rather than of their postcodes, they are to be financially penalised.

I took part in undergraduate admissions, first at Cambridge and then at Oxford, from 1969 to 1995. At innumerable intercollegiate meetings to discuss candidates, only once, around 1980, did I hear an (elderly) tutor intimate a preference for candidates from private schools. I heard much sentiment in the opposite direction. Yet I doubt if social prejudice of any kind had more than a marginal effect on the outcomes. What Oxbridge tutors want to know — and what, through a far more extensive admissions process than those used by other universities, they go to great lengths to try to judge fairly — is how applicants would fare in taking difficult degree courses. Tutors realise that candidates from some schools or families are better prepared for the admissions process than others. Is their apparent sophistication genuine, or is it mere polish, which less privileged candidates of comparable potential have had no opportunity to acquire?

Tutors are used to grappling with such questions. It is in their interest to answer them honestly, for if they choose wrongly they have to live, as teachers, with the consequences of their mistakes. What they cannot hope to do is to create, from nothing, habits of strenuous thought and of intellectual curiosity in undergraduates aged 18 or 19. It is a cause for despair, not only among Oxbridge tutors but in the nation at large, that those habits are not more widespread. The explanation lies not in the practices of discrimination imagined by Labour but in the condition, which is so largely Labour’s own achievement, of the state schools and of the state’s ever-softer exam syllabuses. There is the real “scandal”.