Ben Hickey illustration of a mortarboard on a green background, with a ladder on its side.
© Ben Hickey

We’re a curious bunch, us Brits. We boast two of the most revered and envied universities in the world, Oxford and Cambridge, which have educated huge numbers of global leaders, scientists and cultural figures, and produced all sorts of historically significant discoveries, theories and inventions. And yet calling someone “Oxbridge-educated”, in this country, is often seen as some kind of put-down; a way of getting one up against opponents. 

Take conservative academic and commentator Matthew Goodwin, for instance, author of a new book on a “new elite” of “radical woke” liberals, “often defined by their elite education”. Last week, Goodwin lashed out at the “left-leaning Oxbridge graduates” who were criticising his book — tweeting a list of critics along with the university they went to next to their names (seven of the nine were educated at Oxford, one at Cambridge and one at LSE), along with the line, “Guys have I touched a nerve? lol”. 

Or actor-turned-outrage merchant and leader of the rightwing Reclaim party Laurence Fox, who tweeted last week: “Don’t vote for career politicians with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge”, suggesting instead that his followers should “vote for people who have experienced things”. Everyday people like Fox, presumably, who was educated at Harrow, one of Britain’s most elite boarding schools, until he was expelled.

Before I continue, I should say that I didn’t go to either private school or Oxbridge (I stayed in London for university so I could pursue an ill-fated career in music). But I can still see that this kind of scoffing is both facile and wrong-headed, and gives off a distinct whiff of jealousy. Why should we scorn those who have managed — whether by hard work, good luck or, as often, a combination of the two — to get into some of the best higher education institutions in the country? Do we really want to turn getting a good education into something that people should feel embarrassed about, or to punish those who attend them?

Promoting diversity should not mean restricting access for Oxbridge graduates, whose socio-economic backgrounds vary hugely these days. These universities might have once been the preserve of the rich — in the 1920s, only around 20 per cent of Oxbridge students started their education in state schools — but that has been changing rapidly. In 2022, 72.5 per cent of Cambridge’s intake was from state schools, with 7 per cent of places going to those who had been eligible for free school meals due to low household income.

Oxford’s state-school admission rate is now almost 70 per cent, having risen from less than 60 per cent in just six years. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Durham, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Exeter, Imperial and University College London all admitted fewer state school students than Oxbridge between 2016 and 2021.

Oxbridge’s state school admissions are still not representative of the UK, where only 17 per cent of sixth-form students go to private schools, and state schools in wealthy areas and grammar schools still have an advantage. But we should recognise that huge progress has been made. Some rich parents are even thinking twice about sending their children to private schools, worrying that could give them a lower chance of getting into Oxbridge.

Many of the best and most original thinkers I know went to neither Oxford nor Cambridge (some didn’t go to university at all). I do know brilliant minds who did. But I also know dull ones, and I believe that getting an education from these universities can sometimes breed a kind of complacency, groupthink and sense of superiority — irritating at best, corrosive at worst.

So it is not without reservation that I defend these universities. But I do believe that the value they offer to society vastly outweighs any negatives. We mustn’t let the worthy objective of reducing entrenched inequalities descend into some kind of anti-intellectual, jealous contempt for excellence. Would Britain — or the world, for that matter — really be better off without elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge to give us outstanding doctors, scientists, teachers and public intellectuals?

The 20th-century philosopher John Rawls argued that we should aim to have a just society rather than a wholly equal one, realising that the latter was not possible. I’m with Rawls. Not everyone — even those who work incredibly hard at it — can get into Oxford or Cambridge, but these institutions nevertheless can benefit us all.

Letters in response to this comment:

Oxbridge’s glittering prizes and the PPE conundrum / From Bruce Tozer, Salisbury, Wiltshire, UK

Oxbridge won’t prepare you for North-South divide / From John Joisce, Berkeley, CA, US

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