The Oxbridge delusion: why the more we talk about these two great universities, the less we know

Our writer, who graduated from Oxford two years ago, says the degree of ignorance and nonsense around Oxbridge is now harming those we ought to help

Related Topics

The media has an Oxbridge obsession – mythologising it, sniping at it, venting its spleen over the Coalition at it. Along the way it has created a nightmare-ish caricature of a place populated by arsey sloanes and unhinged tweedy tutors. This portrayal of Oxbridge isn’t just ludicrous though - it’s damaging.

This week thousands of eager hopefuls are making their way to Oxford and Cambridge for their interviews. Newspapers regrettably take this as their cue to re-hash urban myths about crackpot tutors playing draconian mindgames, and cluck over ‘what to wear’ as though the candidates were auditioning for a big budget remake of Brideshead Revisited.


This comes on top of a year-round diet of Oxbridge news stories covering the minutiae of all things posh and trivial - from what outlandish fancy dress students are wearing, to what they look like coming out of summer balls. This year one intrepid journalist even did a Freedom of Information request into what drunken antics students had been disciplined for. Somehow these findings were spun out into double page spreads and comment pieces.

The problem with such reporting, and programmes like ‘Young, Bright and on the Right’ is that the joke isn’t just on the protagonists. Media types think they are mocking the pretentions of ‘Oxbridge twats’ – and they are – but at the same time they are peddling a distorted and deeply unappealing version of the place. If, like many prospective state school applicants, all you have to go on is the prospectus, it can easily put you off applying. It’s not just a harmless bit of populist posh-bashing.

After all, think about who takes these articles and TV programmes on board. It’s not fledgling David Camerons and Boris Johnsons sitting in Eton. They have been preparing to go since their first Latin lesson, and they don’t feel alienated by it. No, it’s the very people who need to be encouraged, who don’t have parents, teachers and the weight of expectation chivvying them along at every turn. It’s so frustratingly counterproductive.

Worse still is when journalists, comedians and television producers casually use Oxbridge as a byword for ‘elitist’ – and not elitist in the benevolent, meritocratic sense, but in the loaded dice sense. It politicises and toxifies Oxbridge, dragging it down into the national mood of resentment. The Guardian website even has a whole education section helpfully entitled ‘Oxbridge and elitism’ just in case the message ‘it’s not for people like you’ was too subtle.

The main reason for this present conflation of ‘Oxbridge and elitism’ may well be the social composition of the cabinet, but running with the stereotype of Oxbridge students as arrogant is unfair.  Think how much we hear about The Bullingdon Club. The Bullingdon Club is literally 12 people at any one time. 12 people. Think how absurdly unrepresentative of the student body that is. Lots of boys asked to do it aren’t even interested – hardly anyone at Oxford cares about it. To all but the press, and people who hate Osborne and Cameron, it’s an irrelevance.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

Apart from the odd plaintive admissions tutor, no one ever bothers to say that the vast majority of students don’t have trust funds, right wing views or ancestors who have been going since the 13th century. It’s important for prospective applicants to know that and yet, sadly, they don’t.

Cambridge’s proportion of state school undergraduates is the highest it has been for 30 years and it spends £2.7 million a year on schemes to encourage more. Oxford has a bursary that keeps tuition fees down at £3,500 for the poorest students. Both universities are committed to upping their state school intake, and Mike Sewell, the new head of Cambridge admissions, says that his job is a process of chipping away at ‘out-of-date attitudes’. Would he have such a task if the press were more responsible?

And it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more these misconceptions and caricatures are propagated, the more underprivileged applicants will believe they wouldn’t fit in. What is really worrying is that the teachers believe it too. At Oxford, state pupils make up 58 per cent of new entrants and at Cambridge it’s 63 per cent. Yet, according to The Sutton Trust, a tiny 7 per cent of state school teachers realise that over half of Oxbridge intake comes from the state sector. That’s a frightening amount of misinformation.

Perceived barriers are just as important as actual ones and Oxbridge is not the villain here. Let’s call a moratorium on the Bullingdon Club, on interview myths and all this inverse snobbery. This media circus makes state school applicants the real victims.

Disagree? Read Tom Mendelsohn's response here.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
A suited man eyes up the moral calibre of a burlesque troupe  

Be they burlesque dancers or arms dealers, a bank has no business judging the morality of its clients

John Walsh
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star