Johann Hari: Oxbridge walls that can't be scaled

A blunt, blind admissions system still discriminates in favour of wealthy interview-machines
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Nothing causes a louder shriek in Britain than if you challenge the right of the rich to pass their privilege untouched on to their children. The shadow chancellor George Osborne has just decreed that the richest 1 per cent will – under David Cameron – be allowed to inherit £2 million estates they have done nothing to earn without paying a penny of it towards schools and hospitals. The "horror" of inheritance tax – introduced in the great progressive wave of the Edwardian era – will be over. This has been greeted with a gurgle of pleasure by Conservatives; why should anyone get in the way of wealth "cascading down the generations", as a Tory Prime Minister once put it?

Over the next few months, an even more tender spot for the privileged will be pressed: Oxford and Cambridge admissions. Today, a third of all Oxbridge students come from just 100 top schools. For example, half of the entire intake of £20,000-a-year Westminster School go there every year: some 410 pupils. The wealthy now have a taken-for-granted expectation that their kids will go to the best universities.

Some on the right, like the late Bill Deedes, explained this by saying the wealthy are a genetic over-class who naturally have cleverer children. But there's a hole in the side of this theory: several studies have shown that when rich people adopt kids from poor backgrounds, those children go on to do just as well.

To see how this buying of unearned privilege works, I have to introduce you to two people I know who applied to study Philosophy at the same Cambridge college as me in 1998. The first is a likeable, confident guy whose parents are wealthy businesspeople. Let's call him Andrew. They sent him to one of the most expensive private schools in Britain, and he had never been in a class larger than 12. He was trained for over a year for his Cambridge interview – a near-scientific drill that included one-on-one tuition by Oxbridge graduates, extensive rewriting of his application form "with" a teacher, and even being videoed so his body language could be analysed.

The other person, by contrast, was a chain-smoking teenager brought up on an Enfield estate by her dinner-lady mum. Laura wrote her application alone, and she had no preparation for her interview at all. None. Most of her A-level classes had 25 people in them, and were led by teachers who hadn't even got top grades themselves. Andrew got four As. Laura got an A and three Bs.

Who had demonstrated they were smarter? I'd say Laura did – but she was rejected, while Andrew got in. His training – and a lifetime in such surroundings – paid off. Laura was nervous, and her complex thoughts about Nietzsche and Hume and Russell must have appeared less polished. It was Cambridge's loss: the cleverer student got away. This isn't a stray anecdote. For too long, it was the main story. In 2006, for example, the gap between the best private schools and the best grammar schools in exam results was just 1 per cent – but the private schools students were still twice as likely to be admitted.

Here's where we get to the pressure-point. For the past few years, senior figures in Oxford and Cambridge – pressured by a Labour government – have resolved this can't go on. They want to run a university for the best, not a highbrow finishing school. So they have begun to introduce very mild reformist measures. Instead of just looking at the surface of exam and interview performance, they will judge them in the context of the student's life. They'll look at your school's average exam grades, whether your parents went to university, and the area you're from: if you got good grades at a school in Moss Side, you'll be rated higher. This is painted by huffing headmasters at private schools as "positive discrimination". But the choice is not between a system that discriminates and one that doesn't. It's between a blunt, blind admissions system that discriminates in favour of wealthy well-trained interview-machines, and a sophisticated, seeing one that snuffles out the genuinely clever.

Soon the green shoots of these new policies will become clear. Geoff Parks, Cambridge's Director of Admissions, says early indicators show there will be a "significant" increase in pupils from normal backgrounds this year. Expect a firestorm of anger. The right-wing press will rage that "middle-class" children are being "persecuted". Their definition of "middle-class" is increasingly comic: the median wage in Britain is £24,000. Half of us earn more; half of us earn less. Yet they describe as "Middle England" people who spend that entire sum every year on one child's schooling.

Often, the privileged will defend their place merely with a visceral howl of "It's mine!" For example, David Cameron's relative Harry Mount has written an angry article asking, "What's wrong with keeping Oxford within the family?" He admits his success at his interview was "staggeringly unfair" but went on to say the only problem is rich people can't buy preference for their children outright with "donations."

There will be furious predictions that Oxbridge will collapse under a "chav-alanche" of inferior students. Those of us who believe that in Britain you should be able to get to the top if you are smart need to push back hard for these changes to be stepped up. Of course Oxbridge can't get us all the way to genuine meritocracy. For that, the schools system needs to be reworked to be genuinely comprehensive, rather than the parody we have today where they are split between good schools selecting by house-price and sink schools for the rest. But even with the unequal products of that system, Oxbridge can go a lot further.

In the 1970s, when the former Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was Chancellor of Oxford University, he was amazed by the changes in the admissions process. "In my day," he said, "all they asked you was where you got your boots made." In the 2040s, we will be equally astonished that Oxbridge used to rely so heavily on interviews that give an unfair advantage to the well-drilled children of the wealthy.