Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge?

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2011

Well, seeing as I had a go at Nick Clegg last week for citing inaccurate and misleading statistics to damn Oxbridge, I’d better be even-handed… Prime Minister David Cameron has followed his deputy’s lead, and (in headline-speak) ‘slammed’ Oxford for its “disgraceful” (his term) failure to admit more black students.

I won’t go into the details. There’s no need: the University (my employer) comprehensively refuted the claims when rent-a-quote Labour MP David Lammy first decided to fashion a bandwagon he could get moving and leap on last December.

As Oxford pointed out then:

  • school attainment is the single biggest barrier to getting more black students to Oxford. In 2009: 29,000 white students got the requisite grades for Oxford (AAA excluding General Studies) compared to just 452 black students;
  • in 2009, nearly half of all black students nationally who got the requisite grades applied to Oxford – compared to around 28% of the white students with the grades;
  • 22% of Oxford’s overall student body is non-white (BME).

Furthermore:

Knowsley in Merseyside, for instance, which Mr Lammy cites as failing to get students into Oxford and Cambridge, is the worst area in England for school achievement. In 2009 only 212 students in all of Knowlsey took three A levels – of these, only three (1.4%) achieved AAA or better. Of those three, two got offers from Oxford. That’s a pretty outstanding success rate. And the area of the country with the highest Oxford success rate is Darlington in the north-east.

Could Oxford do more to attract students from more diverse backgrounds? Almost certainly. Could politicians do a better job at ensuring there are enough students from diverse backgrounds eligible to apply to Oxford? Absolutely. So perhaps they could focus on their job, and let Oxford focus on its?

Final point

There’s an odd cultural phenomenon on display here… In the UK politicians gain popular mileage (or at least feel they gain popular mileage) from attacking the very best universities in the country. In the US (a country Brits often feel happily superior to) no politician would ever consider attacking America’s best-performing universities: it would be career suicide. Perhaps it’s because success is regarded with suspicion in the UK, while it is celebrated in the US?

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17 comments

New post: Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://bit.ly/fAVAwz

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2011 at 6:26 pm. Reply #

@NiklasSmith @ftwestminster Already covered 🙂 Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://bit.ly/fAVAwz

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2011 at 6:33 pm. Reply #

A must-read post RT @stephentall Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://bit.ly/fAVAwz

by Niklas Smith on April 11, 2011 at 7:04 pm. Reply #

RT @rosadickinson: RT: @stephentall: New post: Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://t.co/hx6i8rs >> THIS THIS THIS

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm. Reply #

RT @NiklasSmith: A must-read post RT @stephentall Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://bit.ly/fAVAwz

by Stephen Tall on April 11, 2011 at 7:08 pm. Reply #

RT @rosadickinson: RT: @stephentall: New post: Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://t.co/hx6i8rs >> THIS THIS THIS

by Itsmotherswork on April 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm. Reply #

RT @esbagshaw: An excellent post from @stephentall: Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://bit.ly/e8Ztti

by James Shaddock on April 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm. Reply #

“@esbagshaw: An excellent post from @stephentall: Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://t.co/DUDek4R #fb” #Cambridge

by The Dragon Fairy on April 11, 2011 at 7:25 pm. Reply #

RT @Puffles2010: “@esbagshaw: An excellent post from @stephentall: Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? http://t.co/DUDek4R #fb” #Cambridge

by Conor Hamilton on April 11, 2011 at 7:28 pm. Reply #

Spot on from Stephen Tall: Why do politicians talk such rubbish about Oxbridge? – http://bit.ly/g39ygq

by lornaspenceley on April 11, 2011 at 7:59 pm. Reply #

Errr… American politicians are *always* attacking their best-performing universities. Especially the Republicans, but the Democrats do it, too.

by Chris on April 11, 2011 at 8:01 pm. Reply #

I think Chris has it right about the US. Americans may celebrate success, but that doesn’t mean they don’t attack their universities as well from what I’ve seen.

As to why politicians get mileage out of attacking Oxbridge, even when most of them have graduated from one of them, well, mocking or picking at Oxbridge is one of the ways of poking at those who are traditionally seen as the social superiors of most of the country I guess.

by Kieran E on April 11, 2011 at 9:32 pm. Reply #

I do take your points about politicians often bashing Oxbridge without a proper leg to stand on, the current case is a clear example of it.

However I do take issue with your closing line “Perhaps it’s because success is regarded with suspicion in the UK, while it is celebrated in the US?”

I think we have an inherent suspicion of success for good reason. Throughout British history success has been largely down to accident of birth rather than any substantial desert of the individual. Ok I’ll concede that this has improved substantially since the bygone Victorain era for instance but you cannot blame it for being embedded in the British psyche, especially when so many remnants of socio-economic structural constraints still persist. Indeed as Liberals don’t we exist to be constantly cautious of these very constraints? Of course we should celebrate success where it is deserved but if erring on the side of suspicion is what it takes to erode those other barriers than I’ll happily stick with it.

In America there is a slightly delusional perception that they all live in a completely meritocratic society and therefore success is more readily applauded as an individual’s success. This positivity may seem more appealling on the face of things but I fear it masks much deeper truths about the kind of society we live in.

by Bobby on April 11, 2011 at 11:11 pm. Reply #

Throwing my hat in the “US politicians attack best-universities too” ring. It’s an effort to appear less elite, I suppose.

by Alice Malone on April 11, 2011 at 11:18 pm. Reply #

Thanks for comments. I’m happy to be proven wrong, that US politicians are just as likely as their Brit counterparts to have a pop at top universities — can someone point me to examples, though, please? I mean examples at a senior level. In the UK, the current PM and DPM, and the last PM (albeit when he was Chancellor), have all attacked Oxford’s admissions. I’ve not come across equivalent examples from the US. But, as I say, please do prove me wrong on this 🙂

@Bobby — I take your point, but I do think there’s a difference between rational scepticism (a good liberal philosophy), and what too often becomes a knee-jerk suspicion of people/institutions that have done well.

by Stephen Tall on April 12, 2011 at 7:50 am. Reply #

@lornaspenceley I agree with your link on Oxbridge – http://bit.ly/g39ygq – the problems emerges earlier than university.

by Peter Roberts on April 14, 2011 at 12:00 pm. Reply #

[…] populist attacks on universities: in contrast to David Cameron’s over-compensating tendency ignorantly to slam the UK’s top universities for ‘disgraceful’ admissions […]

by ‘The Hughes Report’: Lib Dem MP’s 33 recommendations to improve access to higher education on July 24, 2011 at 2:31 pm. Reply #

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