Cambridge University's Access Efforts Dealt Another Blow

13/08/2015 09:34 | Updated 11 August 2016

In a recent article in the Huffington Post blog community a Cambridge alumnus wrote this piece, criticising the "tyranny of tradition at institutions like Oxford and Cambridge". Although the Cambridge Tab has already replied, I am writing to explain why Mr. Goodman's article actually damages the access that seems to him to be so important.

The first problem is that the article is centred on money. Saying that a video created as part of a college ball was equivalent in value to a scholarship to attend university (and to be clear it wasn't according to sources inside the committee) doesn't really mean that much. People will generally pay more to have fun. A footballer certainly seems to earn more money than a doctor working in a community struck by Ebola, for example. But I can't remember the last time I saw an article blaming football fans for spending the money required to purchase a season ticker. Let us not forget that this year, St. John's May Ball Committee raised £8,500 (to be shared between SOS Children and the Cystic Fibrosis Trust). By suggesting the university is all about fancy end-of-year balls the huge range of scholarships open to students is completely hidden to the reader.
Secondly, suggesting that academic excellence isn't the focus of admissions is just wrong. That academic excellence is "used as a byword for selecting the children who attended the most expensive schools" could mean one of two things:

On the one hand, this statement could mean - literally - that entry into Oxbridge is determined by who you know. Your mum's best friend's sister is the professor sitting across from you at your interview, whilst your father's tennis partner is the person who marks your entrance exam(s). This would certainly be nepotism. And whilst it is impossible to say this never happens, nobody could seriously argue this constitutes the majority of cases. Moreover, you'd need a very large extended family indeed, to know every A level exam marker to be sure of getting the AS results you need to get an interview in the first place and the A2 results to make your conditional offer.
On the other hand, nepotism might simply mean that those who have an advantage, do better at getting in. And when you stop and think about it, you realise that this is actually fair. Imagine two people competing in a race. If one person has more money and they decide to spend it on a faster car, chances are that they will win that race. This is exactly the same as getting into Oxbridge. And it is the same thing as doing well during your degree.
In my first term, I struggled (still am struggling according to many of my supervisors) to get good results. Towards the end of the term, knowing my classmates a little better, I asked to see a fellow student's essay. It was much better than what I had been writing. When I quizzed her about it, she told me that was how her private school had taught her to write. I though about this long and hard. And I concluded that it was fair, that she was better than me: she had been bought the equivalent of a faster car. I turned down a conditional offer to one of the best private Sixth Forms in the country because there were opportunities my State school offered me that the private sector couldn't. But I don't expect that I received the same education as someone who paid.
The belief that Oxbridge props up the class system in the UK through its traditionalist environment seems quite the leap of logic. Sure traditionalism can be bad. But instead of blaming the Cabinet's education, perhaps we should consider whether other forces are at play in the desire to criticise them - for example economic ideology? When you compare the UK with other countries around the world, the UK is hardly doing badly. More fundamentally, the correct way to engage with the economic policy of Her Majesty's Government is at a political level. The government was, after all, elected (whatever personal opinions people might have regarding whether the election system still works).
Many students will feel pride, when, in a couple of days, they receive A level results allowing them to take up their place at university. Some of those students will have made it into Oxbridge. But when the next application round comes due, some students from non-traditional backgrounds will have articles like that of Mr. Goodman shown to them. And they will shy away from applying because it doesn't make Oxbridge sound like a very nice place. Students who know that Oxbridge isn't engaged in a mission to create spend-a-holic graduates with world domination as their goal - which necessarily mean those students either with family who have attended Cambridge, or experienced life at Cambridge through one of the excellent access schemes - will continue to apply. The status quo will endure.