Status anxiety

If you want an argument against state-school-only Oxbridge colleges, just look at me

My father was a Labour peer. So why should I have received special treatment when I applied to Oxford?

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

I read with some interest the proposal for Oxford and Cambridge to set up state-school-only colleges in the Guardian this week. As someone who was educated exclusively in the state sector, and then went on to Oxford and Cambridge, I have a special interest in this area.

I’m not in favour, obviously. The main objection is that if Britain’s two best universities set aside a quota of places for applicants from state schools they would effectively be saying that independent schools will always be better. That would be profoundly demoralising to those of us trying to raise standards in non-selective state schools. Comprehensives will only appeal to people from all walks of life, including the professional elite, if the education they’re providing is every bit as good as that at Rugby or Stowe. That won’t happen if you hold comprehensives to lower standards.

Some people will accuse me of hypocrisy because I was the beneficiary of positive discrimination. I applied to Brasenose because it had introduced a scheme to attract candidates from state schools and, after a gruelling interview, I received a low conditional offer. Nevertheless, I’m a good illustration of why such positive discrimination is wrong-headed. My father was a Labour peer and when I applied to Oxford I was at a grammar school on the edge of Hampstead Heath. I didn’t deserve special treatment, yet if Oxford and Cambridge set aside places for state school applicants it would be those like me who’d gain, not children on free school meals.


The notion of creating state-school-only colleges is particularly daft. The author of the Guardian proposal said it would be no different from having all-women colleges, but omitted to mention that these are on their way out. When I was at Oxford, there were three women-only colleges — Somerville, St Hughes and St Hilda’s — but all of them now admit men. One of the reasons was that, being single sex, they struggled to attract good applicants. Bright, ambitious women didn’t want people to think they’d only got into Oxford because of positive discrimination, and I suspect state-school-only colleges would have difficulty attracting the best applicants from comprehensives for the same reason.

Judging from their academic performance, women-only colleges still struggle to compete. Of the three that remain, all at Cambridge, one is at the bottom of the Tompkins Table (the league table of Cambridge colleges) and another is fourth from bottom. The best performer is Newnham, which is 22nd out of 29. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of positive discrimination. It’s also worth noting that since Oxford phased out single-sex colleges, the percentage of women admitted to the university has increased. It’s not quite 50-50, but it soon will be and, as sure as eggs are eggs, women will start to overtake men.

One of the most unattractive things about the Guardian proposal is that it would reinforce the misconception that Oxbridge is a bastion of class privilege. Suppose a handful of Oxbridge colleges became state-school-only. The inevitable consequence is that all the other colleges would become just that bit posher. The social apartheid within our education system up to the age of 18 would be preserved for another three or four years in our two most famous universities. Not only would that be undesirable in its own right, it would confirm the impression among potential applicants from state schools that Oxford and Cambridge are the last redoubts of the English class system where people like them are treated like second-class citizens.

During my time as an Oxford undergraduate, I joined an outreach scheme that involved travelling round comprehensives and trying to persuade sixth-formers to apply. The most common reaction was that Oxford was for posh people — not the likes of them. I did my best to counter this impression by talking about the state-school boys and girls who were thriving at Oxford, as well as pointing out that the quality of the teaching was second to none. It rarely did any good. They were convinced they’d be out of their comfort zone.

I thought this was the legacy of Brideshead Revisited, broadcast a few years earlier, but this attitude still persists today and applies as much to Cambridge as it does to Oxford. I blame the hand-wringing liberals who continue to attack Oxbridge for being ‘elitist’. State-school-only colleges wouldn’t dismantle this myth; they would perpetuate it.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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  • commenteer

    Just a word about women-only colleges; when women couldn’t apply to male colleges, that is until circa 1973 at Oxford, women’s colleges did very well indeed. Somerville College Oxford was at the top of the Norrington table in the late sixties, making Somerville girls the equivalent to the boys at Balliol or Merton.
    If you wanted to achieve the same with state-school only colleges, you’d have to deny state school applicants the right to apply to any other college. It wouldn’t happen.

    • Mary Ann

      I think that state school only colleges would be a retrograde step, they would be seen as second rate.

      • LordJustin

        Yes, the correct solution is to improve the standards of other universities, and then compete

        • FrancisHorner

          Or even more to the point, improve the quality of state schools so that their candidates get accepted on merit – as so many more (in proportion) were in the 1960s.

          • Graham Cresswell

            …because the bright children of the underprivileged classes had access to grammar schools – just like Toby did.

  • Lydia Robinson
    • Mary Ann

      Even the Torygraph has described Civitas as a right wing think tank, so they would deny there is a problem. State school children who go to Oxbridge are more likely to get a first than private school children, which implies they have to be cleverer to get in. The universities lay the blame on the state schools not putting their brightest forward.

      • LordJustin

        The problem is the way employers over rate Oxbridge degrees compared with other universities. I have hired and fired several Oxbridge graduates whose good grades belied their lack of ability to do anything very much – except more study.

  • gill

    Toby, you do not mention the fact that you got turned down by Oxford after an interview. The letter for some reason was held up in the post so your father Lord Young telephoned the Oxford college claiming it was unfair of the college not to have informed his son, who was under the misapprehension that he had been accepted (toby you always were sooo confident). The college was so abashed – or maybe in awe of a peer of the realm – that it backed down and changed its rejection to acceptance. There’s parental influence for you! Lord Young’s meritocracy in action, eh Toby?

    • Toby Young

      You’ve got it half-right. Following my interview, I was given a conditional offer of three Bs at A-level and an O-level pass in French, but only managed to get two Bs and a C and didn’t even attempt French. I then got two letters from Brasenose, one saying I’d got it, the other, a week later, saying I hadn’t.

      My father then telephoned the admissions tutor to find out which letter was correct. The second one was, obviously, but the admissions tutor said that since they’d sent the acceptance letter first I could come.

      About 25 years later I had lunch with the same admissions tutor (now retired) and I asked him whether he’d agreed to let me come because of who my father was. He said no. It was because, legally, I could have forced the college to honour the first letter so they had very little choice.

      Incidentally, my father though meritocracy was a thoroughly bad thing. He thought it was an ideological tool for legitimising inequality. I don’t share that view. Like you, I believe in meritocracy which is why I’m opposed to positive discrimination.

      • Flavius Aetius

        Just out of curiosity, do you recall what was the legal position? Would you have been able to compel the college as a matter of private law, or would you have needed to move a writ of certiorari?

      • Gabby

        Why did they make you such a low offer?

  • John_Page

    The Oxford admissions procedure already weights GCSE success at poor schools more heavily than at elite schools.

  • HD2

    The article seems to suggest that Toby Young knows his father should never have been made a Life Peer…

  • Mitzi

    I have always believed your background counts more than your brains in these universities that seem to discriminate and have done so for years wether they protest or not.

  • Mary Ann

    Mmm don’t like the sound of that, I have never thought that positive discrimination is a good thing, what we need to do is to get rid of negative discrimination, and state schools need to get best of their clever children to apply. I have read that the children from state schools tend to get better degrees, probably because they need to be that much cleverer to get the four or five As required.

  • john

    Education in Brirain is the dark heart of the class system. The elites will never allow admision to favoured universities, jobs, positions etc to be open to fair competition from the plebs. The entire public school system would collapse if it didn’t offer a leg up to Oxbridge etc.
    If selection were truly fair (ie quantifiable say SAT) then Oxbridge would quickly switch to state school dominance – purely on a statistical basis.

  • LordJustin

    My father was not a Labour peer, or any kind of peer. So I had to make my way on my own. And I’m sure nobody handed you your degree for free, only the opportunity to work for it.

    BUT, if my father HAD been connected to the Establishment, I would have expected him to pull more strings than Gerry Anderson in a series of Thunderbirds, and I would have had no faux-shame about admitting, nay boasting, about it.

    The sooner we realise that there is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG with working hard, and using your success to ease the struggle for your children, the sooner we will banish the corrosive politics of envy. I know it, you know it – and even the envious leftie haters know it, deep down.

    So STOP rending your clothes and gnashing your teeth, you hypocritical b*****d!

  • “…as well as pointing out that the quality of the teaching was second to none.”

    Yeah, but teaching what exactly? The necessity for the fall of empire when the USSR and allies still existed, and Sub-Saharan Africa was nowhere near ready for independence? Or maybe force-feeding the students the ramblings of the Marxist agent John Maynard Keynes? Or was it the preposterous observation that Jesus never existed, even though Roman subjects outside of the Levant had no problem in accepting the ludicrous a-historical Gospel/Acts narratives where ten Roman governors refuse to touch Jesus & disciples/apostles; the only way a Roman subject living outside the Levant would have bought such rubbish, knowing how Roman governors immediately behaved towards charismatics such as Jesus and disciples/apostles, is if the Roman subject KNEW the Jesus narratives were true! Oops, those “second to none” Oxford teachers never thought about that, huh? It fell to a graduate of the University of the District of Columbia to make that discovery.

  • David Elliott

    No matter how you much you try to disguise the fact is that Oxbridge is entirely geared to perpetuating the class system in the UK, it will never accept egalitarian principles of merit before class distinctions of privilege. Better to scrap the whole sordid system now.

  • Gabby

    Separate is not equal.

  • rtj1211

    Haven’t you yet learned that the Labour Party, at its upper ends, IS a private school in of itself??

  • JezSullivan

    I just chanced upon this article & Id like to ask Mr Young when will he open a branch of his free school in Slough? Because surely if he believes in meritocracy. The children of Slough would benefit far more than some leafy part of West London?

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