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The real Oxbridge delusion: Deny it all you want, the red trousers and rich kids stereotype fits perfectly

Our writer, an Oxford graduate, slams his elitist alma mater
  • @Tom_Mendelsohn

There's one thing that's right about Olivia Williams' article from yesterday: the media certainly has an obsession with Oxbridge. That's where it ends, of course, because they think it's brilliant.

You can’t trip over a newspaper comment section these days without finding someone eulogising their heady days at College, unsubtly reinforcing the ever-popular idea that without an Oxbridge education, you are nothing. There’s a good reason for this navel-gazing, and it’s not that Oxbridge is alpha and omega; it’s that the commentariat is dominated by alumni – myself included (though the actual domination I manage is negligible).

That the battery-farming-for-braniacs that passes for the Oxbridge service is what these people consider the best years of their lives should be enough to interrupt the narrative, but it’s not. Let me have a go.

They are wrong, you see, just as Williams is wrong. Oxbridge is toxic, a crèche for nascent masters of the universe with a lamentable effect on meritocracy in Britain. The media perception of Oxford is exactly how Oxford actually is (I’m making the assumption that the atmosphere is similar in Cambridge, if slightly crummier).

Silver spoon

It is no myth, for instance, that Oxford is rammed to the very gunnels with floppy posh hair and bright red trousers, because it really is. It’s no myth that tutors still delight in byzantine lines of questioning during an interview process that vastly favours the slick confidence that comes from the expensive coaching and small, nourishing class sizes that a private education so effortlessly provides. And yes, there may be only one Buller, but that point rather conveniently ignores the fact that there’s a society of silver-spoon asshats in antique pantaloons at practically every college, with many more university-wide. Each of these is just as much a glorified drinking society for the right sort of chap – they’re just better at keeping their antics under wraps.

The fact is, the university is dominated by the moneyed upper middle classes. University life, decentralised as it is, revolves around the Union, which is a microcosm of corrupt entitlement, full of carefree scions using their gigantic head start in life to cement their privilege. The fact that state pupils make up 58 per cent of Oxford students and 63 per cent of Cambridge is pathetic by any measure in a country that is 93 per cent state-educated, unless you really believe that rich people are innately cleverer. They aren’t; they’re just better prepared.

Meanwhile, to deny that the young Tories in the Young, Bright and on the Right documentary are in some way unrepresentative of a decent segment of the student body is blindly optimistic. People like that are everywhere, and I have several true, awful stories about the Conservative Association, which libel laws prevent me from relating, that would set you reeling towards the barricades. Even amongst the non-actively political in Oxford, you are never more than 74cm from an appalling opinion on something or other.

Finishing school

I can’t find the exact quote, but something Yannis Philippakis of the band Foals, himself an Oxford drop-out, once said nailed it: Oxbridge is little more than a finishing school for rich kids preparing for lives in power. The ‘dreaming spires’ brand is a fatuous one – for all the academic contributions Oxbridge has made, the vast majority of alumni – even the state schoolers, a large proportion of whom went to big fancy northern grammars, and who are therefore far from salt of the earth – end up working at banks, or hedge funds, or financial analysis, or accountants, or Magic Circle law firms – the very apparatus of social discohesion.

I freely admit I had a massive leg-up from Oxford. I do appreciate what I’ve got out of the place – CV points visible from Space, mostly – but the more I think about it, the more I realise I never deserved my place. The leg-up I received resulted from the leg-up I’d previously had from my Winchester education, which drilled into me the self-possession and knowledge that allowed me to breeze through my interview. As three subsequent years of termly reports will attest, I was slick but diffident. Would my place have better gone to someone more dedicated but less oleaginously public school?

The whole rotten Oxbridge edifice, supported by its wealthy alumni and its incorrigible media boosters, is definitely the villain and instigator in all of this. The very real barriers to entry aren’t a result of coverage, which is almost to a fault dreamily eyed fawning. It’s not the spectre of inscrutable men in tweed that keeps people away, it is actual men in tweed, who have a demonstrable class interest in keeping their drawbridge up, while perpetuating the fable that Oxford eliteness is academic rather than financial.

Disagree? Read Olivia Williams' original piece here.