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).


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?