(Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

You can’t ‘level up’ Oxbridge

It is high time we ally elite education, irrespective of background, with the service of the public good

Leading independent schools saw the number of their pupils offered places at Oxford or Cambridge seriously reduced this year, testimony that the government’s desire to “level-up” has an educational dimension too. The aim of levelling up is apple pie and mother’s love – undeniably good. The problem is the means by which it is achieved, and whether it can be reconciled with the interests of our two most elite universities.

As educationalists who have prepared hundreds of students for Oxbridge exams between us, we have become used to the annual story around their admissions: the inching up of the percentage of state school students admitted; the delight of the Vice-Chancellors; the bland statements that such progress testifies to “long-standing commitments to address educational inequality”, and so on.

But by focusing so much attention on what happens at 18, the debate is reduced to the scrabbling over a handful of places, with little opportunity to consider the problem in the round. “Addressing educational inequality” has been taken to mean social mobility for the very few rather than an educational settlement that works for the many.

Our best universities need to select the best applicants, regardless of all other criteria

The problem is that education has been ever more subordinated to politics. Of course no one wants to see private schools used as a way of buying passage to Oxbridge. Of course we all want the widest possible funnel into our two leading universities so that talent is found in the most diverse places. But we do not need such important institutions weighed down with an invidious form of identity politics that looks on applications from independent schools with a measure of suspicion. We should not punish students for doing well.

Our best universities need to select the best applicants, regardless of all other criteria. That they are not doing so is suggested by the fact that they offer lower grades and, increasingly, foundation years to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The very need to do so suggests there is something rotten not in the state of universities, but in secondary education. Why should we need “catch up” programmes for young people who have been in full-time education for 13 years?

It is suspected that the majority of those offered places under access schemes apply for Arts subjects, in which it is far easier to make up ground in terms of core knowledge not taught at school. We also need to know how many of those students take first class degrees or go on to do research, the life blood of world class universities. It is not hard to guess why the data on these questions in hard to come by.

The focus on entry at 18 deflects attention from schools. There is reduced pressure on under-achieving state schools to get their act together, and increased pressure on middle-class families to take their child out of independent education for the Sixth Form, over-burdening the maintained sector. If anything, Oxbridge should be steadily raising the bar for entry, encouraging schools to raise their game in response. After all, it is schools – not universities – who have the real teaching expertise.

An elite will always be with us; every country has one. We need our elite institutions to focus on producing elites that are worthy of the name: those who have been intellectually stretched to their limit, but have also been educated in a way that can do something for the country at large. Too many Oxbridge graduates see it as a conveyer belt to highly paid careers that serve little real value.

What should this mean in the era of levelling up?

We need an academic fast lane in all our state schools

What we’re currently doing is too little, too late. We need an academic fast lane in all our state schools. For years that fast lane has been provided by independent schools and grammar schools, the problem being that access to these is often denied to the same students access schemes seek to favour. If we want to improve access to our leading universities, we need to make preparation for those universities a specialised skill in every state school, recognising that the student who wishes to read Maths at Cambridge has special needs just like any other student. These fast lanes might be determined at 14 (rather than the standard 11), when the able child is far better suited to decide their future.

We might also look at a variation of the French “Grande école” system of elite universities, encouraging access by expanding the available destinations and siting them across the UK to spread opportunity to those who do not want or cannot afford to travel to the South. Rather than the cost of setting up new institutions, elite wings could be housed within current universities, so that Bristol, Durham, Edinburgh et al on all have specialist “Great Halls” in all the important areas we are going to need after the ravages of the past years: civil service; international culture & trade; engineering; natural sciences; green tech, and so on.

This top 1-2 per cent of students from each year group, the majority of whom should be drawn from the domestic pool, must then be orientated towards the needs of the nation, and thereby the world at large. A striking piece of research from Sally Power in 2016 revealed a gulf between Oxford and the top-flight “Sciences-Po” graduates about what it meant to “give something back”, the former going largely into the private sector, the latter overwhelmingly feeling that their future lay in public service. As Jeff Bezos announces that education will be one of his focuses after leaving Amazon, such that it can’t be long until we have a highly commercialised sector popping up Google and Amazon “campuses” all over the country, it is surely high time we ally elite education, irrespective of background, with the service of the public good.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover