THE BLOG
23/09/2015 07:27 BST | Updated 23/09/2016 06:12 BST

Let's Not Turn Oxbridge Into a Comprehensive

As an Oxford graduate educated in a comprehensive school, I am dismayed at the idea of abandoning the selection criteria at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Academic standards would deteriorate and academically minded students would be denied the chance to aspire.

Selina Todd, fellow and vice-principal at St Hilda's College, Oxford, argues in The Guardian that abolishing the criteria would solve the problem of the under-representation of working-class and BME students at Oxbridge. She asks, 'Why shouldn't everyone attend the university of their choice?' and condemns a selection process that, she claims, puts middle-class white men at an advantage.

I have the same problem with the status quo as Todd. The low proportion of working-class and BME students, as well as those from regions such as the North East and Wales, is troubling and likely to be self-perpetuating. But the solution is not the abandonment of criteria altogether.

Allowing students to simply study where they liked would create a system where universities lose their individual strengths and appeal. It is a good thing at the moment that some universities, such as Sussex or UEA, allow for more interdisciplinary and experimental forms of study, while Oxbridge and some other Russell Group universities offer more traditional curricula.

The rigorous academic education students receive at Oxbridge is something to be celebrated. Opening up these universities to all who wish to go there would result in the dilution or even destruction of this globally renowned form of education, the very thing that draws students to apply in the first place.

It certainly attracted me. I was lucky enough to find my schoolwork easy, but I yearned for the chance to debate ideas with people whose academic abilities matched or surpassed my own. Arriving at Oxford from a comprehensive school, I was thrilled to be finally in a place where my brain could be challenged.

Selection made this possible and, in my opinion, the admissions process works fairly well to discover those who have the greatest academic potential.

Todd argues that the interviews put white middle-class men at an advantage, as they are more likely to make the 'assertive declarations' that will impress. I made no such declarations in my interviews; in fact, I was shy, stuttering and intellectually naïve. But they also had my grades, several essays and a German grammar test to go on - even the most unconfident student has plenty of chances to show his or her potential and those whose assertiveness outweighs their intellectual ability are weeded out.

In my time at Oxford, my potential was realised and I emerged a more knowledgeable, critical, eloquent and confident person. Had I attended a different university, my mind would no doubt have been challenged in different ways, but Oxford was where I thrived.

Every child should have equality of opportunity in our education system. Every pupil who is smart, driven and would benefit from the education offered by Oxbridge should be able to apply and have an equal chance of being given a place.

But to abandon selection criteria in the search of this equality is utterly self-defeating. The academic standards achieved at Oxbridge would decline, its appeal would deteriorate and future generations of academically gifted students would be denied the chance to develop their minds in the ways that I feel lucky to have experienced. I fear such a system and hope never to see it implemented.