The real Oxbridge delusion

If you happen to have found yourself navigating murky waters of Twitter today there’s a good chance you will have washed ashore upon an article from The Independent entitled ‘The real Oxbridge delusion: Deny it all you want, the red trousers and rich kids stereotype fits perfectly’. 

Crafted by ex-Oxonian and would-be journo high-roller Tom Mendelsohn (no, me neither) the piece reveals few surprises; trundling, for the most part, over fairly inane Bullingdon Club stereotypes and flagging up admissions statistics to come to the conclusion that Oxford is a “crèche for nascent masters of the universe with a lamentable effect on meritocracy in Britain.”

This is ground that has been covered many times before, painting a picture of the University much like that we all enjoyed so much in the recent BBC documentary Young Bright and on the Right. 

Of course, what the article points to can hardly be deemed an utter fiction. Despite the oft-quoted (and itself painfully low) figure that 57.5 per cent of Oxford’s undergraduates are state educated, of those only about 34.5 per cent attended comprehensives or sixth-form colleges (which educate around 90 per cent of the population), the other 18 per cent having benefited from grammar school educations.

Add to this the port-fueled antics of the white-tie wearers among us and you may well think that Mendelsohn might not be all that far off about Oxford.

Yet there is a genuine danger in this genre of facile red-trouser bashing, and not only that it creates a media discourse that reinforces stereotypes by deterring state school applicants who already make up only 29 per cent of candidates.

No, the real problem with articles such as The Independent’s is the manner in which the elitism of Oxbridge is taken as being symptomatic of nothing more than, as Mendelsohn puts it: “an interview process that vastly favours the slick confidence that comes from the expensive coaching and small, nourishing class sizes that a private education so effortlessly provides.”

In short, applicants from private schools have more chance of being successful because they’re better candidates. They may not be more intelligent, but they are better prepared, better educated and—in general—more confident in their own abilities.

The point I am trying to make here is that it isn’t Oxford that is elitist; it’s Britain itself. It is so very easy for an—incidentally privately educated—alumnus like Mr Mendelsohn to frame Oxford as a self-perpetuating Tory factory. The problem is, by doing so, we are forgetting that the problems lie not with an unfair admissions process but rather with an education system that requires young people to pay thousands of pounds a year to get a decent education. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is little in life that gives me more pleasure than to lampoon the dinner jacket wearing exploits of the public school boys of OCA, the Bullingdon Club or The Union. But let’s not allow these bogeymen in blue to anesthetise us to the simple fact that, in this country, our futures are sold to the highest bidder long before we fill out a UCAS form.


Like what you read? Why not follow Isaac on Twitter?






  1. Rosie

    23rd December 2012 at 13:18

    Absolutely right – we should not blame the Oxford system. They are simply choosing better candidates because the private system is providing a better education system overall. It is the government who have let us down, and yet are happy to point the finger and blame the “elitist” universities, rather than taking responsibility.

  2. Toast

    23rd December 2012 at 15:50

    “state school applicants who already make up only 29 per cent of candidates.”
    Do you have a source for this? Seems unbelievable – if true, then Oxford is in fact admitting disproportionate numbers of state school students, since 57 odd per cent of successful applicants are state school, according to your article.

  3. roadwax

    24th December 2012 at 02:26

    This is one of the worst attempts at article writing that I have ever come across.

    I can’t work out whether I am illiterate or instead the writer is incompetent.

    Isaac’s argument is lost like a stolen hire car in an airport car park.

    Please, re-write.

  4. rhaoeps

    25th December 2012 at 16:30

    For statistics, see here:

    On my first day at Oxford some pillock in a bar spend perhaps an hour ranting about how his father’s suggestions for where to buy land in Africa for diamond mining. My impression of the place hasn’t improved since then.

  5. Anonymous

    9th January 2013 at 17:41

    Wow…that’s the stupidest article in the world…

    Elitism plus money equals stupidity equals this article

  6. Dill

    3rd February 2013 at 22:05

    Being better prepared is not the same thing as being a better candidate. The tutors need to be able to weed out those privately education applicants who would never have got A* grades at a comp and let in a much higher percentage of state school students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

The Latest

To Top