We don't want duffers, says 'tough-on-the-toffs' Bristol

If his former university ever really did provide an easy ride for posh types, it doesn't now, today's undergraduates tell Charlie Courtauld
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The Independent Online

I should know that Bristol was a toffs' university of choice: I went there. So did at least 10 other boys from my year at Eton. In those days, Bristol had something of a reputation. A doss, they called it. If you didn't fancy the swotty atmosphere of Oxbridge, then Bristol, Durham, Exeter and Edinburgh were the places for you – "conversion" courses – where you could swap your "Auntie" at A-level (two Bs and a C) for a "Desmond" degree (a 2:2, geddit?) with the minimum of effort and maximum of Neighbours viewing.

I should know that Bristol was a toffs' university of choice: I went there. So did at least 10 other boys from my year at Eton. In those days, Bristol had something of a reputation. A doss, they called it. If you didn't fancy the swotty atmosphere of Oxbridge, then Bristol, Durham, Exeter and Edinburgh were the places for you – "conversion" courses – where you could swap your "Auntie" at A-level (two Bs and a C) for a "Desmond" degree (a 2:2, geddit?) with the minimum of effort and maximum of Neighbours viewing.

But if the Daily Mail is to be believed, all that is over. Bristol is now a hotbed of dumbing-down and class hatred, offering free degrees to dimwitted plebs and barring its gates to hugely qualified toffs. The evidence mostly rests on a single case. A public schoolboy, Rudi Singh, was rejected last year without an interview, despite having 11 "A" grades at O-level and five at A-level. He is now at Cambridge. His former head, Roger Dancey, was scathing: "Bristol's policy is causing deep unease among heads – they have always been arbitrary; now they have added discrimination to their selection policy."

In search of the truth I returned last week to Bristol, 15 years after leaving. Outside Temple Meads station, the city centre is still a concrete catastrophe, courtesy of the Luftwaffe. Up an off-puttingly steep hill looms the university's pseudo-gothic Wills Memorial Building, reminding us that tobacco was one of the twin foundations of Bristol's mercantile success. (Evidence of the other, slavery, is less celebrated.)

And so I stand outside the Students' Union for the first time in 15 years. When I was a student, I never actually went in it. Rumour had it that it was full of "the other lot". You know: science students.

It's just silly prejudice, I tell myself. They're just like you and me. OK, so they talk in funny mumbles, love Star Wars and wear uncool T-shirts – but come on. So I walk in to the oddly named Epi bar. Within a few minutes I've assembled a quartet of students, each with a different educational background. Charlotte Brown came to Bristol from a state school. Nicky Lloyd was from a Surrey private school. Matt Saunders-Wood went private, too, with an assisted place, while Ben Dunbobbin's a grammar school kid. They are all – of course – doing sciences. Some things never change.

One obvious advantage of private education lingers at Bristol. Nicky arrived with friends already here, and school contemporaries came here with her. Charlotte is the only representative of her Norfolk state school. "There is a clique from private schools – they all know each other. I know some of them too – but not the cliquey ones," she says. There's another advantage. Privately educated kids tend to enter university a year older. Like most of her friends, Nicky took a gap year. None of the others did. But she rebuts any charge of dumbing-down: "My course [electrical engineering] is hard. You wouldn't last unless you've got the grades you need." Ben agrees: "It's hard work. You need your grounding before you arrive." So it's no longer a doss? What of the anti-toff ethos we've read so much about? "Most of us just want to forget school and concentrate on university," claims Matt. There is a chink of support for the Mail's thesis: state school pupil Charlotte applied to Warwick, Imperial and Oxford as well as Bristol. "If I'm honest, I came here because they made the lowest offer. The others wanted me to do another exam," she says.

Aha! Anti-intellectual bias? Inverted snobbery? Admissions tutor Tim Cole denies it. "What amazes me about these stories about alleged bias is that they concentrate entirely on A-level results. We don't. We've got lots more to go on – teachers' reports particularly. We're not looking for groomed-for-interview kids. We want well-rounded students, willing to learn. A-level results won't necessarily show that. We're unashamedly elite. But not elitist. We don't want duffers."

Oh dear. Not even for History of Art?

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