Once again, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are in the headlines for their poor representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This week it’s how just eight schools send more students to Oxbridge than 75% of the country, last month it was how students from the least advantaged 20% of postcodes make up less than 5% of the student body. For certain, Oxbridge has an access problem.
This is a problem of social mobility. Cambridge and Oxford are notorious for their graduates going on to take up high-flying jobs and influential positions in government and media. If we think that the people who occupy positions of power should accurately reflect the population at large, then making Oxbridge more representative is a start.
However, missing in many analyses of how Oxbridge can help solve social mobility is a critical approach to why Oxbridge is overrepresented in “top” professions. When Oxbridge graduates (who make up less than 1% of the population) are 75% of senior judges, 47% of newspaper columnists, 24% of MPs and over 20% of civil service employees it wouldn’t be controversial to regard these professions as exclusive. If we are to challenge the dominance of certain schools in admission to Oxbridge, we should also challenge the dominance of Oxbridge in the acceptance to top professions.
By seeing Oxbridge as a means to a (socially mobile) end, we lose ourselves in the elitism we claim to be against. In fact, supporters of social mobility should be directly opposed to Oxbridge’s overrepresentation in the elite - even if Cambridge and Oxford were more accurately representative places. Continually having certain jobs occupied by a select few is poles apart from what a society with good social mobility should look like.
Widening participation at Oxbridge shouldn’t be driven by a desire to see students from disadvantaged backgrounds gain social mobility and rocket to the top of their desired professions. It should be driven by a desire to expand and enrich academia with historically excluded voices and experiences (they are universities after all). The onus of making a more social mobile economy, with accurate representation at all levels should not rest solely on Oxbridge. Exclusive professions should be just as involved in outreach work as universities are.
When going to Oxbridge is synonymous with being successful our first reaction shouldn’t be to send more people to Oxbridge so they can become successful. Instead we should ask why a concept of success is so entangled with going to Oxford or Cambridge. When we do this we might find that, actually, the same problems of exclusivity that we blame on Oxbridge are even more pronounced in the job market. If we truly care about social mobility we cannot allow Oxbridge’s dominance to continue.