Simon Carr: No point pretending Oxbridge isn't best

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The Independent Online

The obsession with Oxbridge is "mad", a "middle-class obsession". So says one of the luminaries of the Russell Group. Maybe he's trying to detoxify the reputation of these two institutions; to reduce the general level of envy, resentment and hostility towards them.

But if you had it in your range, you'd be nuts to swallow the gentleman's line. There is nothing mad or obsessive about it. Imperial is marvellous, Edinburgh is fab but Oxford – and Cambridge as well, if you insist – are still the closest Britain comes to the university ideal.

My old headmaster had two things to say about it: "The point of going to university is to satisfy your intellectual curiosity. If you aren't intellectually curious, don't go." If it weren't for some pretty steady pressure from home that would have ruled me out, incidentally.

It's a noble sentiment, though, for these debased days. Note, nothing about jobs, "skills", modernisation. It's why philosophy and medieval history are still academic subjects – and always will be.

The other piece of headmasterly wisdom was equally contrary to the spirit of our age: "The only real value of a university education," he said, "is to teach you to be able to tell when a fellow is talking rot."

My tutor in Brasenose all those years ago helped me understand this. He never contradicted his pupils. "Oh, how interesting," he crooned when I suggested Beowulf was acting in accordance with moral principle rather than martial virtue. "Are you using that word 'morrrral' in some special sense?"

I laughed, he smiled and repeated: "Are you using the word in some ... private sense?" And my answers became less convincing the further I stumbled from the path. You were questioned and then cross-questioned, and your own answers led you gently away from imbecility. But then he came from a generation which considered it rude to contradict someone. Alas, he failed to pass that on, that particular nicety of manner.

But this tutorial system and the right of tutors to interview and question and choose the students they think they can teach – that's an essential freedom they should fight like cats to keep.

The ones who interviewed me thought they could make something of me. It was their decision. They offered me a place which was something every other university failed to do. Leeds turned me down. Keele turned me down. A narrow squeak for them, as it turned out.

Interviewers had A-levels to go on, but they can't have paid much attention to my two Bs and a D. They could also read your S-level papers which gave them a better idea of the free-range abilities they seemed to like. And of course, there was an interview where they could gauge how teachable you were. And how teachable you were by them.

Gordon Brown's attack on Magdalen was pretty low, we can now see. Laura Spence's competitors who got the places did extremely well in their exams: multi-firsts. And truth to tell, if Laura had turned up at the Treasury with her six A-levels asking for admission it's unlikely, isn't it, that she would have been given a job.

So, never mind league tables and results, Oxbridge are the top institutions of the academic world with a power, prestige and culture beyond anything else in their range. They are what Manchester United is to football enthusiasts. They are the SAS. They are Chanel. They are not the repository of all virtue, but they are the academic elite, and to pretend otherwise only confuses those who don't know already.

Talking silly numbers

If a million pounds is reduced by 90 per cent, then what does that leave? Personally, I don't care, but then I'm selfish.

Maths witch (if that's the feminine of a maths wizard) Carol Vorderman has refused to have her Countdown salary bumped down by 90 per cent.

Countdown, incidentally, is a popular TV game show. I know no more than that.

So – what was she left with? Tick one of the following:

a) £10,000 a year

b) £100,000 a year

c) £900,000 a year

Vorderman would still have had to record 250 episodes of Countdown a year (groan), but then it would only take 40 days of recording (cheers).

Whatever the result of the calculation, it's still pretty good money.

* The restaurant critic of The Times, Giles Coren, might want to consider publishing a collection of emails to sub-editors.

After his prose was tampered with, Giles sent a long, and very, very angry email to the people responsible. In reproduced form it was mainly asterisks.

We've all got examples to offer. I once pinched a joke from Alan Bennett's Forty Years On, saying, "He has crossed the thin line which separates lunacy from insanity". That was changed to "from lunacy to sanity".

And again: "But the point about the Curate's egg was that it was wholly rotten." That was changed to "the point about the Curate's egg was that it was only 'good in parts'". Giles had an "a" edited out. The level of rage it called forth was very impressive.

The sight of someone really angry over something minor is always comic, and a book of it would make a terrific Christmas best seller.