Lorna Finlayson recently argued in The Guardian for the need for state school colleges in Oxbridge. As a state school student myself, I felt patronised and belittled by her suggestion.
She talks of her concern for the disproportionately low number of students from “non-traditional” backgrounds, or, in other words, less advantaged backgrounds. I could not agree more. She also talks about busting stereotypes, but this is exactly what the introduction of state school only colleges would not do.
When it comes to the issue of access, statistics about background are often bandied about, such as the fact that 5% of students from private school went on to study at Oxbridge in 2011, as opposed to 1% from state school. However, when people cite these statistics, they often do not contextualise them with the fact that a much lower proportion of state-educated students apply. The problem is not that “private school students obtain higher grades,” but rather that state school students are not receiving enough support from their own schools to undergo the application process. I agree with Finlayson that action is necessary to shake the oppressive structures still present within the university, but I feel that creating a form of social segregation within the university would not achieve this.
The argument that state school colleges are comparable to women-only colleges becomes redundant when we consider that the latter were only introduced because women had previously been banned altogether from enrolling at university. As sexual equality in education has gradually improved, sex-segregated colleges have mostly become co-educational. As a member of a former women-only college, I revel in the pride of being part of a progressive body, reflected by the college’s decision to embrace gender equality and to fight against sexual discrimination.
A move to women-only colleges would be a move back into the past. In the same way, the creation of state school colleges would be a step backwards for the University, serving only to reinforce the hierarchy that already exists. All too often I have been the brunt of comments such as, “Oh, you’re from state school? It must have been easier for you to get in then, they favour state-schoolers,” or belittled by notions of us being “less intelligent” than our private-school counterparts. Creating a college where only state-schoolers can apply would simply seem to prove that right.
One of the most exciting parts of coming to university, for me, has been meeting people I never normally would have: those from worse-off backgrounds than my own as well as, yes, those famous Etonians discussed by Finlayson. And, indeed, some of them do live up to the stereotype. But to create a divide between state and private school pupils would simply deny us the opportunity to prove them wrong, and deny both of us the opportunity to make friends with those we otherwise might have dismissed as clones of our own stereotypes.
Finlayson talks of a continued division and inequality between state and private school students, and condemns the society to which it belongs. It is not this that I disagree with. In fact, I do feel keenly at times this state/private division in Oxford, although due less to antagonism, I believe, than to lack of shared experience. However, further entrenching this division by the introduction of separate colleges would only support the stereotypes of there being any distinction at all. So please stop patronising state school students. We are just as capable as our private school counterparts, and we do not need to be told otherwise.