92 years since Britain’s first socialist government, social class continues to divide our society. Even as the old distinctions of the working, middle and upper classes have faded away, new conceptions of class remain as critical to the British sense of self as in 1924. The Great British Class Survey, undertaken recently by the BBC and the LSE, split society into seven classes: the precariat, emerging service workers, the traditional working class, new affluent workers, the technical middle class, the established middle class and the elite.
Predictably and lamentably, Oxford University remains a hotbed of the elite. It can be seen openly in the abundance of Old Etonians and Received Pronunciation accents. Though seven per cent of the UK population attends independent or public schools, 43.7 per cent of places at Oxford last year went to such applicants. Where one in twenty Year 13 students from private schools go on to Oxford and Cambridge, just one in a hundred do so from state schools. The difference is even starker when you consider the public schools: just seven of them, those mentioned in the Public Schools Act 1868, constitute almost five per cent of Oxford’s admissions, often sending half of their students to Oxbridge.
To many Oxford students, this ubiquitous percentage of Etonians, Harrovians and Carthusians may seem like the real elite. After all, though many of our parents paid for our school, relatively few boarded or wore tails. Sadly, this is a delusion. The survey showed clearly that paid education almost certainly places you in the elite. Bursaries and scholarships are still worrying close to being exceptions.
Even if you didn’t pay for school, you may well be part of the elite. Of the remaining 55.4 per cent of Oxonians from state school backgrounds, a remarkable quantity attended selective schools. Of the 884 successful applicants in 2013 from domestic maintained schools, 137 attended grammar schools, representing 15 per cent of Oxford’s state intake. According to the House of Commons Library, under five per cent of state school students attended grammar schools. This would not in itself be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that just 2.6 per cent of grammar students received free school meals, compared with 14.9 per cent in comprehensives. The class-skewed nature of grammar school admissions can be seen further in their intake: on average, between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of successful applicants attended independent primary schools.
This leaves a core of about 35 per cent of students who came from a comprehensive, state-funded background. It’s difficult to determine how many of these students are from the ‘elite’ class; given the disproportionately great ability of the wealthy to choose a ‘good’ comprehensive over a ‘bad’ one, it is unlikely to be a negligible amount. Even assuming no member of this 35 per cent is from the ‘elite’, the picture of class representation that emerges is appalling. Just six per cent of the British population surveyed belonged to the ‘elite,’ and yet at least 65 per cent of Oxonians fit within this socioeconomic class.
It should be noted though that the university has been trying to make Oxford more representative of society in socioeconomic terms. In agreement with the Office for Fair Access, it spent over £5.2 million on access and outreach last year, including programmes such as the UNIQ summer schools. These target the socioeconomically disadvantaged, aim to provide them with the tools needed to make a successful application.
Oxford prides itself on producing the next generation of world leaders, and so it is particularly shocking that admissions remain so far skewed in favour of the middle and upper classes. This country has paid lip service to the idea that class and background should not determine one’s future for decades, yet Oxford’s record on equality of opportunity today is not much better than in the 1970s.
In addition to the essential moral case against inequality, there is much evidence that fair access would be to Oxford’s benefit as well. A more diverse and competitive admissions system will simply lead to better students and the creation of a richer place of study. Our lopsided origins cloud our judgements and research interests, and our teaching struggles to show the whole picture. A more inclusive Oxford University could shape the world positively for decades to come.
The relative lack of Oxford students from non-elite socioeconomic classes is definitely a significant issue in Oxford and the country more widely. If there is such poor social mobility that young people from the poorest backgrounds are unable to access the best universities, is there really sufficient opportunity in our society for all? This dilemma may be caused by wider attitudes within the state education system, however, rather than solely the nature of the Oxford admissions process itself. In 2014, 37.2 per cent of Oxford undergraduate applicants came from independent schools. Is it any surprise, then, that a similar percentage of accepted students come from the same educational backgrounds?
To allow the most disadvantaged in our society access to an Oxford education, we must focus on encouraging students from the poorest backgrounds to apply. To achieve this, we must first and foremost develop a culture of ambition and realisation of opportunity within British state schools. Through the use of education to enhance social mobility in Britain, we can work towards creating greater opportunity for all; allowing all people to fulfil their potential through hard work, irrespective of the circumstances in which they started their lives.