Oxbridge – My Experience

I can well believe David Lammy’s recent complaints about Oxbridge admissions, having witnessed exactly the same during my time at Cambridge (1960-68). (See https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/19/oxbridge-becoming-less-diverse-as-richest-gain-80-of-offers#img-1.) My only surprises are that these abuses have lasted so long since I left, and – in retrospect – that I wasn’t more aware of them at the time. I did become so during my last two years there, as a College Fellow; and indeed it was my college’s deliberate (it seemed to me) exclusion of boys from State schools that caused me to resign my Fellowship, and take up a job in a more sympathetic university, Hull, to the surprise of all my fellow Fellows, to whom Hull sounded rather ‘Secondary Modern’ – ‘it’s in the North, isn’t it, Bernard?’ – but to my great relief at the time. Once there I found I could sleep at night, unlike after those awful ‘High Table’ dinners with some almost unbelievably reactionary dons: ‘we don’t talk about the Round Ball game here, Bernard. Only rugger’; and indeed I never regretted my decision thereafter. The specific reason for that decision was the Senior Tutor’s deletion of the names of four or five good State schools I had provided for him, from a list of headmasters invited to a dinner at the college to establish ‘links’ with them. ‘The Master and I looked at your recommendations, Bernard, but came to the conclusion that these weren’t the sorts of schools we wanted our students coming from.’ It was as blatant as that.

So, how had I got in? I hadn’t been to a ‘Public’ School, but to something close: what was called at that time a ‘Direct Grant Grammar School’, where about two-thirds of the boys (boys only of course) were fee-payers, many of them boarders, and the rest, including me, financed by ‘County Scholarships’ from the local Education Authority. (When the ‘Direct Grant’ was abolished, it became fully ‘Independent’.) It had all the Public School attributes: lots of ‘Classics’, the ‘House’ system, a CCF, huge playing fields, bottom-beating (as a ‘Praeposter’ – or prefect – even I was allowed to cane smaller boys. I never did), and, of course, ‘links’ with Oxbridge colleges. The ‘masters’ – teachers – knew the ropes. I was ‘put in’ for an Oxford and a Cambridge College, and offered places at both, but chose the Cambridge one because it offered me a College scholarship too. (More money.) The day I received its offer, by telegram, was, I think, the happiest of my life.

It never occurred to me then that my success was not based purely on merit, but had depended very largely on luck. I was beneath the ‘class’ level of all my contemporaries: not working class but pretty near – lower-middle, the son of Secondary Modern school teachers, and with what today would be called an ‘Estuary’ accent, not quite Cockney, but pretty plebbish; all of which clearly put the College off me when I went ‘up’ for an early interview in my Lower-Sixth year. ‘The college is a community,’ explained the Senior Tutor (later incidentally to become Headmaster of Eton). ‘What we’re looking for is people who are clubbable.’ I clearly wasn’t, so I failed that; but later took the College’s scholarship exam, and passed that. (I was – always have been – better in writing.) Later I came suspect that the College, aware even then of public complaints of class bias, had taken me in as its ‘token prole’.

I didn’t mind. I was gloriously happy at Cambridge, during my undergraduate and postgraduate years: wonderful buildings, pretty good (but far from outstanding) teaching, long vacations, friendly mates, even the public-school boys (or ‘chums’, though they could be a bit patronising), and – at that time – adequate State grants of money for both tuition and living. Best of all, there were the fantastic ‘extra-mural’ opportunities that Cambridge offered. I concentrated firstly on the theatre, as a set-designer, taking productions to the Edinburgh Fringe and meeting many of the great actors, producers and comedians of my generation (I could name-drop if I wanted!); and secondly on Labour politics. (I was the sole member at my college of the University Labour Club.) I learned a great deal about the upper and upper-middle classes there, which stood me in good stead afterwards – in my understanding of British history, that is, rather than socially or materially. Looking back, I’m not surprised I loved it all.

It may have been this love that blinded me to the obvious fact that there were no non-whites or genuine working-class lads at my college then: though of course I noticed the absence of women – excused on the grounds that they would need special toilet facilities. (A lot of the older Fellows were bachelors. They obviously has no idea about girls’ plumbing.) And this was in spite of my socialism (even then), and my active participation in the Anti-Apartheid movement. How could I have not noticed? There were ‘blacks’ in Britain then. Maybe it was for the same reason – love – that Oxbridge has neglected this problem during the 50 years since I left. In my case I did get to know non-Europeans in my postgraduate years, in the research seminars I attended (in Imperial history), and in my college’s postgraduate annexe. (PhD students came from all over.) But still never the ‘working classes’, or Northerners, or Welsh. They only came into my purview at Hull.

I fully accept all the points that are made by Lammy and his supporters about the adverse social and political impact of this Oxbridge segregation. It has lain at the root of our national problems for decades. Cameron, Osborne, May, Gove, Johnson – all Oxbridge. If only they had come into contact there with plebs – except as college servants: they don’t count – don’t you think we would be far better run as a country? Harold Macmillan was as snooty as they are, but had had contact with ordinary soldiers in the First World War, which is what he claimed widened his vision and softened his sympathies. Public Schools and the ancient Universities don’t give you that. Open them both up to the ‘people’, I say. And don’t let Oxbridge tell you they’re trying. They really aren’t.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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4 Responses to Oxbridge – My Experience

  1. TJ says:

    Short of Oxbridge becoming postgraduate only institutions, which I’m sure many of the departments would welcome, as Bernard says the problem lies with the colleges who control admissions. Some of them are extremely wealthy bur spend little of tht wealth on affirmative action (unlike Harvard and Yale) trying to recruit more economically disadvantaged kids, instead putting the onus entirely on under resourced comprehensive school teachers to take the initiative. The absurd A level demands plus culturally-loaded interviews put off many state school kids, and A levels are anyway a poor indicator of scholarly aptitude and later achievement. But ultimately to problem comes down to social class, Oxbridge and the public schools reflect and reinforce the class ridden and unequal that Britain has always been.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed. The interviews are a menace. I could give instances of brilliant kids here in Hull failing to get places, I suspect mainly because of their accents. One tutor, on learning a girl came from Hull, told her ‘Hull, that’s in the North isn’t it? I knew someone from the North once. She was a bag lady.’ The applicant wasn’t impressed. Another’s failure – a brilliant boy – dissuaded a whole generation of Hull Sixth-formers from even applying. ‘Oxbridge isn’t for the likes of us.’ I wrote about this case to a Fellow of the same college whom I happened to know. He acknowledged the scandal, but did nothing about it.

      I’ve also taught at Yale. Almost as privileged; but I did have several ‘positively discriminated’ students there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And New Labour did nothing to reverse this scandalous situation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • eric says:

        There’s very little blatant class-based discrimination now, I think – the problem is usually the differing achievement levels in different regions/schools (or, at most, unconscious discrimination). After all, many tutors are now from non-British/ northern/ working-class backgrounds. And things are improving, albeit slowly. Entirely anecdotal of course, but this year’s undergraduate intake in history at my college includes 2 from Continental European backgrounds, 2 from outside Europe, 1 each from Wales and Scotland, 2 from the North, and 5 from the Midlands and South.
        Having had experience of both systems, I find it hard to say which is the more problematic: the ingenious/heartfelt Common Application essays and hyperactive extra-curricular involvement expected by Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc., but within a wholistic approach to admissions, or the inevitably often de-contextualised academic results and interview performance relied on by Oxbridge. I’m inclined to say that Oxbridge do better, if only because it’s even easier for expensive admissions agents to polish up essays and advise on extra-curriculars than for a good school or private tutors to raise exam performance.

        Liked by 1 person

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