Time to abolish Oxbridge?

James Rothwell

A former Oxford student courted controversy last week after calling to “abolish Oxbridge” in an article for  “powerful” Labour-supporting blogging network labourlist.org.

Owen Jones, who graduated from University College in 2005, branded the University a “training ground for the next generation of the Establishment” that “reeks of a public school ethos.”

He wrote: “The idea of having two reigning monarchs of the university system, whose students are automatically regarded as being of a better quality than anywhere else, is completely anachronistic and has to go. Despite repeated – and noble – attempts, both universities remain the preserve of the wealthy and the privileged…what we could call the ‘Oxbridge system’ has to go.”

Jones’s article promptly became an internet sensation and triggered a largely negative response from Oxford students, who flocked to the website to express their disdain.

One 1st year English student said: “Gloriously unthought [sic] out in every respect! Obviously the gowns and suchlike [are] clearly absurd, but what the author is essentially doing is plucking off leaves without noticing the tree trunk.  Although his heart might well be in the right place, I have every concern that his brain may not be so fortunate.”

A handful of readers dismissed the author as an “imbecile” and an “unmitigated prat,” though others rushed to Jones’s defence, with a one commenting: “It’s true. Why should so much of the power and the wealth and the best tutors and facilities be located in two places where the rich and powerful have a disproportionate access to them? Although the article goes a little far and doesn’t provide a clear answer, it is a problem that should be addressed.”

A response also uploaded to Labourlist following the furore by Alex Canfor-Dumas and Josh Glancy who, although in agreement with Jones’s broader ideology, condemned his argument as “almost entirely wrong.”

Daniel Knowles, also an Oxford graduate, responded to Jones’ article in a blog for Telegraph.co.uk. He said: “Abolish Oxbridge? You stupid boy, within a few years, the country would be perilously short of well-educated graduates, the economy would be even more bust, and anyone with any money would be studying at Harvard.”

However, in response to the criticism, Jones defended his claims. Talking to this newspaper, he said: “I entirely stick to the argument. The response that has most baffled me was that I was ‘kicking the ladder from beneath me’. At the centre of my argument was that Oxbridge was only in part educational elite: on the whole, its students represent the brightest of fairly narrow social elite. That’s why I’ve argued for the automatic enrolment of bright working-class kids – many of whom do not apply, despite the best efforts of the admissions departments, because of the socially exclusive image Oxford has in many communities. I’ve also argued we need broader educational elite made up of a number of top universities, rather than seeing Oxbridge as the be all and end all.”

“God knows who Daniel Knowles was arguing against. My argument was that our educational elite should be broader and more socially representative. He didn’t even bother engaging with that.”

Labourlist.org was launched in 2009 as an independent website supporting the Labour Party. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has said the site is “really really good” that is “flourishing and agenda-setting” and “very powerful.”

June 2011
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3 Responses to "Time to abolish Oxbridge?"

  1. Owen Jones  09/06/2011 at 12:22

    I went to Univ! Where did Pembroke come from?!

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    Rating: +4 (from 4 votes)
  2. Daniel Knowles  11/06/2011 at 11:49

    Former Pembroke student takes the piss out of the former Oxford student who calls for Oxbridge to be abolished…

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    Rating: -2 (from 2 votes)
  3. Charles  28/02/2012 at 23:20

    As a student at a middle-ranking university in the UK, I have discussed standards of teaching in some detail with one of my tutors. He attended Cambridge for a BA and MA, (PhD at my university), and has said that he teaches his part of the course in exactly the same way he was taught it, and that he marks to the same standard. Mostly students get 3rds and 2.2s and one or two scrape a 2.1, and exceptionally a 1st is awarded. Having attended lectures at Cambridge on an aspect of the course I was to study elsewhere, (it is near my hometown), I can say that the standard was no different. I get as many and as thorough notes during lectures of the same duration. He added that although this standard of work was applied to him in the early 1990s, Cambridge itself was in some ways lowering the standards it demanded, and its quality of teaching in some respects. Also, it is expected that the brighter and self-motivated students will organise tutorials with their tutors on a regular basis. This is not empirically meaningful information, but it is reassurance that committed intellectuals are disseminating their wisedom at institutions outside Cambridge (and Oxford?). Ergo, the only thing that needs to change is not the existence of Oxbridge, just a perception that they are the UKs only worthwhile institutions. The sad fact is that there aren’t many geniuses, and there never were; history is just good at compiling them neatly into small spaces (i.e. books). I have known of one, possibly a second person to go to Oxbridge who I would suspect will do something moderately brilliant for the world, in science and mathematics, respectively. I have known many more attend oxbridge who have turned out to be really not all that special in any shape or form. There should also be a distinction drawn between excellent educating and excellent researching, which are unique human activities: in my opinion converging the two completely is wrongheaded, and rarely leads to excellent research and excellent teaching: invariably one activity takes a back seat. Wise up people!

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