The Blog

How to Keep Oxbridge Elitist - Just Keep Repeating Those Stories

If we're honest, we in Britain are still obsessed by our class system, and haunted by the idea that there are certain 'privileges' to which we are either born 'entitled' or not. But what we don't seem to realise is how self-defeating this is.

I don't tend to tell people that I'm an Oxford student: it leads to too many awkward questions. What do my friends' parents do for a living, do I know anyone from Eton, or who owns on a yacht, or is a member of a royal family (or all three), is it true that if you have the right surname they just let you in no matter how stupid you are, etc. etc. repeat ad infinitum. Whether it's my friends from my Mancunian state school or curious foreigners who've heard about weird Oxbridge customs through the media, everyone's a little bit fascinated. And you know what? It gets pretty tiresome.

You see, I'm what you might call an 'Oxford outreach success'. I went to a good state school, but one that didn't have much of a record of sending its students to Oxbridge; my parents were supportive when I was applying, but in an 'I can't give you much practical help because I know nothing about the system' sort of way, and while I'd met plenty of people who'd 'thought about' going there, I didn't actually know anyone who had got in. I was also given an online mentor, invited to a taster day and a week-long, all-expenses paid summer school in Oxford. After being told all kinds of scare stories about the 'right kind of college to apply to', disguising your accent and essentially being told to behave myself (because, you know, it was highly likely that I was going to turn up with my flat cap and whippet, greet the tutors interviewing me with a casual "'ey up" and invite them down t'road for a good ol' chippy tea (wi' mushy peas and gravy, of course!)), most of which I thankfully managed to ignore, I actually got myself a place and settled down for a lifetime of dispelling rumours.

Every year, Oxford and Cambridge and their various colleges plough enormous amounts of money into outreach, trying to persuade people like me that they'd be quite happy here, if only they'd think about applying. I've volunteered various times to take groups of curious school pupils around my college, and done my best to persuade them that we're just an average bunch of people, and I'm not just wearing jeans (as opposed to what, a suit of armour?) for show. Yes, there are people in my college with umpteen generations of Oxbridge ancestors, parents in high-powered jobs and the dreaded surnames listed in this article. There are also plenty who grew up in single-parent families on council estates in some pretty dodgy areas. You'll find just about every kind of accent amongst Oxford students, but surprisingly few that sound like they belong on BBC Radio 4. And yes, we wear gowns (only for exams and formal dinners, and they're pretty impractical for both), play croquet and make a big thing of our rowing regattas, but has it never occurred to anyone that it's partly because, for an awful lot of us, this whole 'centuries-old tradition' thing is actually a bit of a novelty, so we might as well enjoy it while we have the chance?

If we're honest, we in Britain are still obsessed by our class system, and haunted by the idea that there are certain 'privileges' to which we are either born 'entitled' or not. But what we don't seem to realise is how self-defeating this is. The Eton-educated, family at Oxbridge since the Norman conquest, double-barrel-named son (because yes, the rumours of sexism at Oxbridge are alive and kicking too) of a doctor and a lawyer couldn't care less about a girl from a Mancunian state school: he probably doesn't even know I exist. That is, until he finds himself sat next to me in a tutorial.

The fact is, applicants like me will always have a bit of a disadvantage: we're heading in a bit blind, effectively competing against students who've been trained for this kind of interview from a young age. But what we certainly don't need is to be so completely terrified by the idea of putting ourselves forward that we don't even bother putting ourselves in for the selection process because we're convinced that we'll be rejected, or to arrive for an interview terrified to open our mouths in case someone guesses that we're from up north. Because you know what? I'm pretty sure my tutors couldn't care less about my accent, my surname or my home postcode: if I can write a good essay and talk sense in a tutorial, they're happy. Oxford and Cambridge spend a fortune every year trying to persuade us of this, and yet we still prefer to believe rumours of selection-by-name. And if we don't change our mindset, and we carry on discouraging bright pupils from 'atypical Oxbridge backgrounds' from applying, how do we expect that to change?