University challenged

If Oxford University today decides to change its selection criteria to encourage more state school applicants, will the historic rift between town and gown be healed? Esther Oxford reports
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At a bus stop on the Blackbird Leys housing estate, Cowley, Oxford, three teenage girls stand tossing their heads. In any other place they'd look glamorous: wispy hair, Bambi eyes. Against the backdrop of a human dumping ground they don't.

They plan to spend the afternoon in Oxford city centre. Will they hang around the colleges? Astonished look: "No." Have they ever thought of applying to one of the colleges? Wide eyes. "No!" Do you think Oxford University should abolish the entrance examination so that more housing estate teenagers would feel encouraged to apply? "What? I don't know what you're talking about."

Oxford's admission procedures may not be a source of passionate debate here, but it is for the university's 10,000 students and 1,000 or so academic staff.

Today, Oxford's 28 college admission tutors will gather in the Sheldonian, a 17th-century Wren building, and vote on whether more teenagers from the state sector should be encouraged to apply to Britain's most class-discriminating university.

At present 60 per cent of successful applicants enter Oxford via the entrance exam route. To do so they must complete two or three three-hour papers. The rest are admitted on the basis of A-levels and an interview. Only 30 per cent of independent school applicants choose this option.

The scene outside the Sheldonian promises to be a spectacle: students and lecturers walking along the narrow cobbled streets of Oxford, beating their breasts at the moral dilemma looming before them. Should they abolish the entrance exam at the risk of letting in "the masses" (comprehensive school pupils)? Or should they maintain their "We want the academic elite" stance at the risk of missing out on fresh blood and fresh brains?

Critics of the exam, which is taken six months before A-levels, claim that it favours pupils whose schools have the resources to prepare them and thus discriminates against those at hard-pressed comprehensives.

"Public school pupils who've read books on the Oxford reading list and write Oxford-slanted essays are at an advantage," says Andrew Harley, 21, an English literature student who seems to relish the part of the poet: cue green velvet scarf and cloth cap.

Defenders argue that the exam is the best way of assessing an applicant's ability. "Interviewing is subjective and not particularly informative," says Isobel Garney, a graduate of the university. "The entrance exam was designed to single out those peoplebest equipped for an Oxford education." Heaving up her Sainsbury's carrier bags, she strides off.

Either way, the three girls on Oxford's roughest housing estate "couldn't give a toss".

"They'd never take us anyway," says the blonde. "Besides, you don't need to have a degree to get a job round here."

Admissions tutors might have hoped that residents in the town might be more involved. After all, they are set to benefit from the new, splendidly egalitarian admissions procedure. And the battle hasn't been easy: for two years a small but potent group have agitated for change.

But some "townies" have lived through too many town-gown scuffles to allow their antipathy to melt now. "I wouldn't go there even if they offered me a place," sneers one lad. He has plans to go into "video-making".

The three girls giggle nervously. One says: "Yeah. They really look down on you. You've got to be rich to go to those colleges. I wouldn't have the money to keep up."

Another nods: "I got chucked out of one of those green squares last year. They said I was disturbing the students. But I've got rights, too, haven't I?"

Steve Curran, a youth worker on the Blackbird Leys estate, has worked with local teenagers for three years. He runs a community youth centre from a concrete block with collapsed ceilings and a boarded-up window.

The teenagers' apathy, says Mr Curran, is not from lack of interest. Some of the children are startlingly bright and ambitious. It is because they fear disappointment. They've learnt that nobody wants a Blackbird Leys kid. "Everyone thinks we are all into joy-riding, taking crack or burgling," says one ruffled schoolboy.

"Most of the `townies' I work with are not intending to go to university - let alone Oxford University," says Mr Curran. "They're too busy wondering how to pay bills, how to get a job. Unemployment round here stands at 13 per cent."

There have been a few dazzling sparks who have applied to Oxford. As far as Mr Curran knows, all have been rejected.

Bernard Clarke, headmaster at Peers Upper School, the local school for Blackbird Leys, wants to change this. For the last three years he has set upschemes to encourage local teenagers to stop being a townie and become a gownie. The school's partnership with Brookes University (the old Oxford polytechnic) has been successful. Several "no-hopers" have graduated and others have become "mature and sophisticated students".

Mr Clarke tried to interest Oxford University in a similar scheme. "They do have colleges that have shown some commitment to the local community," he says. The university representatives proved unresponsive. "They are much more concerned with the qualityof output at the university. They don't see that they have a moral obligation towards local people," Mr Clarke says.

Oxford University admissions office has acknowledged that more could be done - if only to lessen the town-gown conflict. Oxford still admits fewer students from state than independent schools, even though the latter educate less than a quarter of all A-level pupils. Cambridge University, in contrast, now admits marginally more state than independent pupils. Its ratio last year was 46.3 per cent (state) to 43.6 per cent.

Elizabeth Gibbs, 19, a comprehensive school pupil, now in her second year at Oxford studying law, claims it is not as elitist as some say. Positive discrimination in favour of state school pupils is already in place, she hints: "Public school kids get tougher interviews."

She gives an example. "A friend of mine who went to public school was asked: `How do you feel about your parents having to buy your GCSE results for you?' That's tough!"

What was she asked? "Questions about my interests and my approach to academic work. They wanted to know if I worked hard, had I consumed alcohol in a pub and whether or not I took drugs." The hardest question? "Would you label yourself a feminist?"

Mr Curran is unimpressed. He says that until Oxford University actively encourages bright locals to apply, the town-gown divide will remain as deep as ever.

Nor were the teenagers on Blackbird Leys estate im-pressed by the news that their chances of getting into Oxford might be improved from today. Most are too world-weary (at15) to be seduced by promises. "I want to go to Oxford University but my chances are one in a thousand," said one lad doing his GCSEs. He drags his sports bag backwards and forwards through the dirt.

"I'd like to go to Oxford University, too," says a mate of his recklessly. "I reckon my chances are one in two."

A whole crowd of teenage boys gathers round, each shouting out his ambitionas loud and fiercely as possible. "I want to work at Rover cars." "I want to be a site manager." One voice soars higher than the rest. "I want to work in a fish and chip shop. ButI'm going to Oxford first!"

The wrong sort of barbarian: The King Street Run was banned by Cambridge's proctors - dons in charge of discipline - in 1964, the year I entered the university from grammar school.

King Street had eight pubs. The undergraduate sons of gentlemen used to run from pub to pub, downing a pint of beer in each and standing on tables to make witty orations. The townspeople accepted this as elegant misbehaviour.

The Run was ended because, in the words of the senior proctor, it had become "vile in the extreme. The street was awash with vomit and urine".

It was the kind of barbarianism that the entrance examination and interview, both at Oxford and Cambridge, was supposed to keep out. A Fellow of All Souls, Dr Bryan Wilson, pleaded at the time that cultural and social values should enter into selection as well as education. Only a limited number of entrants lacking a liberal education - he meant oiks - could be absorbed by the many.

What was never clear, as the proctors and their henchmen patrolled streets in search of undergraduates defying the midnight curfew, was whether town was being protected from gown or the other way round.

History records that, from medieval times until the 18th century, gown provoked and town rioted. One famous battle was fought with bows and arrows in Oxford in 1354. The town had become jealous of the "clerks'" immunity to taxation and other perks. Several undergraduates were killed. The university lost. Until 1825 the town was obliged to pay reparation to the university - another cause of resentment.

Whenever town and gown rivalry has simmered down, educational establishments have reverted to their own forms of institutionalised violence. Drunken suppers at which boats are burned have led to window-smashing rampages that townspeople would call vandalism if they took place outside college walls. The police keep their distance as young gents have their fun.

Cynics might say that the young townspeople of Oxford's Blackbird Leys estate were slow in develop their own no-go area in which to practice rioting. But, as Oxbridge admissions tutors would be quick to point out, they are not the right sort of barbarian.

The right sort, bearing bruises from their last bout of high jinks, are applauded by obsequious townspeople as they step out of sports cars with their elegantly gowned partners to attend May Balls.

It is a good job academic gowns were eventually officially abandoned. Today, the streets are more violent than in the Sixties. After dark, gowns would be targeted by muggers. Once again, town rules.

John Windsor

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