The fact that state school students form the majority of Oxford’s undergraduate population often requires re-assertion. It can seem otherwise on two accounts. Firstly, there is a small but conspicuous web of people who know people who know people. For the former pupils of certain independent schools in the South East now at Oxford, it is indeed a small world. Secondly, there can be a tendency among former state school pupils to engage in competitive exaggeration about their school background. If you were one of the first or the very first in your situation to go to Oxford, the contrast between home and university will naturally be greater. Thus it can be tempting to see oneself as a lone warrior held up by one’s own bootstraps above a port-drenched tide of old boys. Tempting but false. During my first few weeks in Oxford, I was struck by how little people brought up their home backgrounds – except, perhaps, to boast of how humble they were. Even those who could be said to have been “born into” it were just as taken aback by this University as those who had come up against all expectations. Two and a half years on, I know many people well without knowing what their schools were like.
That network of ex-public school boys is still there, however. It exists as those blitzed but benign groups sloshing around outside the King’s Arms at one in the morning just as it exists as those who have a little more ease than most at finding an internship. We may all be on the same ship, but the ease with which we embarked is often reflected in our destination and, to an extent, with whom we played shuffleboard during the voyage. Problematic as this may be and symptomatic of how far we in Britain and at Oxford have yet to travel towards true social mobility, I have never felt systematically edged out by this network because I did not attend it members’ schools or know their friends. Oxford’s supposedly predominant cabal of mythical Montys sneering at the common folk over champagne flutes is as fictional as Sam Claflin’s prole-bludgeoning psychopath in The Riot Club.
Contrast this with the press’ depiction of Oxford. In the pages of (let’s name names) The Guardian Oxford is barely recognisable. Going by the articles in their website’s Oxbridge and Elitism section, the layman would be forgiven for thinking Oxford is a university where ninety per cent of the students went to public schools and the less well off are alienated, where white tie-clad future ministers engage publicly and prominently in Heliogabalus-like debauchery. In the eyes of more right wing media, Oxford writhes under the thumb of a privileged loony left junta and its thought police. Neither picture flatters us, neither is true. Moves to address problems of inclusivity within Oxford are often summarily repurposed by the media as fuel for these nefarious fires.
Oxford is still ailed by an unrepresentatively low number of students from state school, BME, and working to lower-middle class backgrounds and by the resultant issues of inclusivity. These problems are rooted in larger failings of British society of which Oxford is both a microcosm and a perpetuator. While there is no panacea, there are many worthwhile efforts. Full time University and college staff as well as hundreds of student volunteers are engaged in widening access by visiting schools, showing groups around Oxford, and helping Oxbridge applicants at their old schools. It is a Herculean labour; but for all those inspired to try for Oxford because of a school talk, a visit, or the UNIQ Summer School, that work is worthwhile. But that task is in no way helped by the media portrayal of Oxford: that is a greater problem for state school pupils than the mythical Montys themselves. The perpetuation of such ideas only serves to make many potential Oxford students believe that this University is “not for them” and thus to undermine that access work. Oxford has a problem with access and inclusivity. It cannot be cured by tutting at it and complaining about it; it can be cured by constructive efforts to challenge these falsehoods and show people who would otherwise be reluctant to apply that Oxford is indeed for them.
This article was written in response to Jack Morrison’s “Is Oxford still a posh boys’ club?” (March 10th 2016)