THE BLOG

Oxbridging the Gap?

03/10/2014 11:32 BST | Updated 02/12/2014 10:59 GMT

"Forget Oxbridge - this year's world university league tables show the best two institutions in the UK should go by the name Impbridge," or so wrote Richard Garner in The Independent last month after Imperial College London leapfrogged Oxford to claim second spot. Of course, how sincerely Mr Garner believed his new, tawdry portmanteau, is unclear, but nonetheless it got me thinking.

At a time where Oxbridge graduates enjoy the lion's share of the top jobs, political or otherwise, Imperial's achievement poses a challenge to public perception. Evidently, our nation's two ancient institutions aren't invincible.

Indeed, this is not the first time an outsider has muscled in on Oxbridge's turf. In fact, it is the third year running that QS has placed a London university ahead of Oxford in their world rankings, with UCL managing the feat successively in 2012 and 2013.

Yet Oxbridge retains a rather haughty existence - too cool for the rest of the Russell Group, collars up and smoking behind the bike sheds, bullying Durham for its lunch money or York thanks to its prefabbed architecture. Ha, you were built in the 60s!

But I wonder, is Oxford and Cambridge's self-assurance completely justified? Imperial's new hat is just the tip of the iceberg; plenty of other universities have demonstrated potential to usurp the big two in one way or another. Earlier this year, for example, the University of Sheffield topped The Times Higher Education survey on student experience, with Oxbridge occupying fifth and sixth respectively; meanwhile, the University of Nottingham has been signposted by January's 'High Fliers' research as the best for graduate employment.

My inevitable dissenters will probably tell me to stop using such superficial criteria and just look at what Oxbridge has produced - world leaders, inventors, authors, actors - and I can assure them, I have. But for every Isaac Newton, Stephen Fry or J.R.R Tolkien, there's an aberrant William Pitt, Nick Griffin or Enoch Powell to bring the standard down.

This brings me neatly to Westminster. Consider the backgrounds of many incumbent and optional politicians: David Cameron, William Hague, Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Maria Eagle and Stuart Wood all went to Oxford, and all studied PPE - seemingly the stepping stone to office nowadays, and a constant source of public criticism.

So, why then, are political parties so soon to select their candidates from such a finite pool of talent? Is there no talent outside of Oxbridge? I'm not saying that Oxford and Cambridge haven't produced some fantastic thinkers or politicians; I'm just pointing out their similar track record of producing plenty of self-interested, out of touch careerists as well.

Still, the Oxbridge demagogue is not confined to politics. Some employers are plagued by the enduring misapprehension, "oh he/she went to Oxford/Cambridge, therefore he/she must be the best," and a great deal of top quality candidates from other universities are often overlooked as a result.

After all, demanding high A-Level grades and staging an interview process is no guarantee of securing the best students. Take my friend Jason (York) for example, 3A*s at A-Level, including perfect scores in Maths and Further Maths or my friend, Joe (Sussex), 2A*s and 1A, with a perfect score in Biology.

While league tables are by no means a concrete indicator of the quality of a university, they are not necessarily hollow either, except The Guardian's, and Imperial's recent achievement is a beacon to all other British universities as to what is possible.

Before I conclude, it's best I address the issue of the degrees themselves, so as not to be caught out in the comments thread. Oxford and Cambridge boast the most academically rigorous and challenging course experiences, which is why they should be in such high demand. For the most part, this is true. Oxbridge English students must wrestle with the most complicated works ever written and the very essence of our language; PPEists are taught the basses of future policies; medics oversee the latest breakthroughs; while lawyers can benefit from the world class debating scenes.

The stickler, however, comes in the matter of contact hours - Oxbridge has all this impressive syllabi and first-rate faculty, but just how much are their students really getting? The question is thus not whether Oxford and Cambridge are equipped to deliver the best the degrees, but are they taking the time to ensure that they actually do?

There can be no doubt that Oxford and Cambridge are two of the best universities in the country, but more needs to be said for the other institutions that are following suit. Well done Imperial.