Imagine for a moment that you are a sixteen-year-old white boy called Steve. You live in one of the poorest parts of east London; neither of your parents has ever worked and you are eligible for free school meals. You attend a local comprehensive school and are doing very well against the odds, as you are clever, hard-working and have found some very good teachers.
Your teachers are encouraging you to study law. They want you to apply for Oxbridge and you're up for this, even though nobody in your family has previously come close to going to university, let alone to Oxford or Cambridge. You start to dream of being a lawyer, imagining that you might one day even become a judge.
And then you read in The Times that: "Radical reform of the selection of judges is needed to break the stranglehold of white Oxbridge males at the top of the judiciary." In other words, Steve, if you do work hard, excel and get into Oxford or Cambridge to read law, then you will become an unfairly privileged White Oxbridge Male, and there are already too many people like you in the judiciary. How is Steve supposed to feel upon reading such a story in The Times? Should he perhaps not apply to Oxbridge after all?
Prior to Labour's introducing tuition fees, one did not pay to study at Oxford or Cambridge; indeed, somebody like Steve wouldn't pay to go there now. His achievement in getting there would have nothing to do with money, and everything to with hard work and academic ability.
It is indeed important to widen access to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, so that they admit the best applicants, not merely the best-schooled applicants. I myself went to Oxford from a comprehensive; it's good that the proportion of state school pupils offered places at Oxford has risen this year to 58.5%, although there is a long way to go.
It is one thing to urgently debate how to get more state school pupils (and more black and minority ethnic pupils) into Oxbridge. It is another thing to turn "Oxbridge" into a synonym for privilege, when it is actually synonomous with hard work and academic excellence. President Obama's being a Harvard Man is surely seen as one of his many accomplishments rather than as evidence of unfair elitism; the same should be true of a degree from Oxford or Cambridge.
If the ablest and hardest-working people often go to Oxbridge, then it is logical that Oxbridge graduates will often be among the ablest and hardest-working people in professions including law. If such people are succeeding in reaching the top and becoming judges, then why does it matter if many of them went to Oxbridge?
Will we next complain that too many leading actors went to RADA? That too many eminent surgeons trained at the great London teaching hospitals? That the England football team draws exclusively on players from Premiership clubs?
If we want to raise the aspirations of thousands of kids like Steve, then we cannot and must not stigmatise success. Fee-paying schools are one thing; the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are another. There is no such thing as "too many White Oxbridge Males". We need more White Oxbridge Males, more Black Oxbridge Females - more hard-working, academically able people of all kinds and from all backgrounds. We need more success.
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