Sorry, but Oxbridge graduates are the best

The sort of people who at 18 have the drive to get into Oxford and Cambridge will rise to eminence later in life
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, you read a piece in the newspaper and think, quite simply, what on earth is the point in even arguing with such idiocy? As Dr Johnson said, there is no point in quarrelling with unresisting imbecility. There is never any shortage in our newspapers of wilfully perpetrated stupidity on any subject you can think of – horoscopes, profiles of celebrity chefs, profiles of the new-born babies of celebrity chefs, girl columnists on shopping expeditions with their Gay Best Friend, think-pieces depicting all critics of Israel as anti-Semites. But this one is a complete corker. Sometimes, you reflect, it must take real energy to be so stupid.

The Institute of Public Policy Research has issued a report, written by Damian Tambini, called All Change At The Top? – the question mark in the titles of such reports always indicates an argument of tendentious absurdity. Mr Tambini has examined the membership of various bodies that control and regulate the media in this country, including the BBC governors, the ITC, Oftel, and the Radio Authority. To his astonishment, most of the people on these boards are middle-aged; 65 per cent are men; and more than a quarter were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge.

Yes; well; hmm. Your problem, exactly? Given the general bias of society, it is not particularly surprising there is a much larger pool of eminent and able men for such boards to draw on than women. There is a much smaller group of women who have been able to rise to the levels of eminence and expertise where a national body will be able to make use of them. That is deplorable, but that is the situation in society, and things are changing so slowly that to have reached the level of 35 per cent is not that bad. Anyone will want to see a situation where there is parity between men and women in these bodies, but it is more important to have expertise than to have parity, and I just don't believe that an able and experienced woman who was willing to serve would be dismissed out of hand.

And they are old – their average age is 56, and the average age of the chairs of the organisations is 63. This is an especially curious objection, at a time when you don't have to be politically correct, merely thoughtful, to worry about the prejudice against old people of distinction. If someone is in their sixties, and has a long history of public service, then the likelihood is they are going to be more experienced in judgement than some 26-year-old disc-juggler.

Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC, is 52. Why should the fact he has been managing large organisations for years with considerable success be held against him? It must be admitted he has the look of a man who has not devoted a great deal of time to the question of Kylie or Britney, but the ability to read a balance-sheet may produce better results at the corporation than someone who is "in tune" with youth culture, tabloid culture, and the moronic masses. Who would you rather have running the BBC – Brian of Big Brother?

But the point at which you really start to wonder about Mr Tambini's sanity is his objection that a quarter of these board members went to Oxford or Cambridge. I misread this objection at first – Christ, only a quarter? We really are in trouble if that's the case. But no; Tambini thinks that is far too many.

Let's get this straight. Oxford and Cambridge are not finishing schools. They are not places reserved for rich posh people. They strive to be meritocratic, and if you are English and clever, you will try to get into one of them, because they have the best libraries, the best teaching, and the highest level of intellectual debate in the country. You would be a fool if you possessed the ability to get in and did not make the attempt.

Of course, they occasionally miss someone very able. But there is absolutely no point in pretending there is no intellectual difference between the average graduate of Oxford and Cambridge and that of other universities. If you are looking for people to sit on the board of major national institutions, and your criteria are that they should be well-informed, intelligent, ambitious and curious, then in this country you will quickly find yourself sifting through graduates of the two universities. The sort of people who at 18 have the drive to get into these universities are the sort of people who are going to rise to eminence in later life. That is simply the case.

What is to be gained by a campaign complaining about experience, eminence, and intelligence? It is easy to imagine the consequences of handing over authority to people with none of these qualities. All too transparently, the desire here is that the BBC should be run by the sort of think-tank wonks who write idiotic papers for the Institute of Public Policy Research. But, frankly, not even their mums could possibly think that a good idea.

p.hensher@independent.co.uk

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