It isn’t fair: Oxbridge wants only the best

In an article on the Sunday Times, 03/02/13, Dominic Lawson reports that there is no positive discrimination towards state school pupils at Oxbridge.

The rate of applications to Oxford and Cambridge has been steadily increasing without a proportionate increase in the number of places awarded, and that has obviously created even more of a bottleneck. Yet the real cause of the squeeze (such as it is) on the independent sector is not that Oxford and Cambridge colleges are indulging in positive discrimination in favour of those from a certain background; it is that these universities have had a sharp increase in applications from outstanding students from overseas, notably the Far East. As Stephen Spurr, the head master of Westminster School, put it to me: “These universities are, rightly, determined to retain their positions in the global league and this is why there is more competitive pressure: it has nothing to do with public versus private sector.”

Spurr insists he has never yet come across a case in which he could demonstrate that one of his pupils had been the victim of “anti-private” discrimination by an Oxford or Cambridge college: “We never find the reason they were turned down is the reason Dr Seldon has given.” Spurr, it must be said, is the head of the school with far and away the highest success rate of getting pupils into Oxford or Cambridge — about 50% of the entire sixth form; exactly the sort of statistic that is odious to Nick Clegg the politician, but immensely attractive to Nick Clegg the father.

Politicians almost invariably make fools of themselves when trying to score points on this topic. None more so than Gordon Brown, when as chancellor in 2000 he accused Oxford of sexual and class discrimination against Laura Spence, a comprehensive-educated schoolgirl with 10 A* GCSEs, whose application to read medicine was rejected (after interview) by Magdalen College. It turned out that all 22 applicants for the five places had 10 A* GCSEs, all 22 had brilliant predicted A-levels and of the successful candidates three were women and two were from comprehensives.

The truth is that there is a bias at Oxford and Cambridge: it is a bias in favour of those who have the most academic potential and who are most demonstrably committed to intense work in their chosen subject. Of course they may misjudge candidates, but those are mistakes rather than deliberate injustices. Not surprisingly, this is something that some headmasters, many parents and all politicians pandering to class prejudice can find hard to accept.

By Dominic Lawson, Sunday Times. Click here to read the article © Sunday Times