Oxford? Sorry prof, I'm into media studies

When a candidate opts for Birmingham instead, something is amiss in higher education

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Since becoming an Oxford don (sounds quaint, doesn't it?) I have felt more and more like a monk shortly before the dissolution of the monasteries. As 1996 commences, that feeling of impending disaster is stronger than ever.

There is a difference, however. The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII was essentially a political act: it was by confiscating and selling the assets of the religious orders that the king was able to buy support for his reformation of the church. (Royal claims that the monasteries were dens of vice were largely fictitious.)

If the dissolution of the ancient universities happens, however, it will be brought about by the "monks" themselves. This time dissolution will be a case of surreptitious - and perhaps even subconscious - suicide. And the "abuses" of which the universities will be accused will exist largely in the minds of those who teach there.

These morose reflections are not, I hasten to add, prompted by the news that (to quote yesterday's Sunday Times) "the rush for a degree has come to a halt". In fact, the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), which show an 8 per cent drop in the number of university applicants compared with last year, are great news. What they reveal is that the Government's ill-judged "Great Leap Forward", whereby the polytechnics were renamed universities and all the others were encouraged to increase their intakes, is at last slithering backwards.

In the Seventies, no more than one in 10 18-year-olds went to university. Since then, that proportion has been pushed up to about a third, with no accompanying increase in funding. Inevitably, therefore, more has meant worse - and the Ucas figures show a healthy reaction against this.

Significantly, it is the "new" universities that have fared worst this year. At Thames Valley and Anglia, applications have fallen by more than 50 per cent; for Derby and De Montfort, the figure is 37 per cent. In other words, sixth-formers have voted with their feet against Mickey Mouse degrees from Disneyland universities.

Also languishing, however, are the post-war glass-and-concrete universities. Once-trendy Sussex has seen applications fall by 40 per cent. Even the LSE, another mecca of Sixties studentdom, has had 13 per cent fewer applications.

The clear winners are Cambridge, where applications have gone up by 4.8 per cent, and Oxford, where they have slipped by a mere 2.8 per cent.

That is the good news. The bad news is not so clearly visible in the statistics. It is only when you have gone through the Oxbridge admissions process (as I have just done) that you detect the problem of qualitative decline. It is the decline of standards at the secondary school level which I fear poses the biggest threat to our traditional "centres of excellence".

Let me hasten to add that this decline is far from affecting all schools. On the contrary, there continue to be many - mostly, though far from exclusively, in the independent sector - whose standards are impressively high.

Each year, I examine and interview about 35 applicants who want to read history at my college, of whom about seven or eight are offered places (conditional on good A-level results). You might think such a harsh selection would be difficult to make. But every year I am impressed at how easy the process is. In truth, more than half of those who apply are non-starters. And the shocking thing is the low quality of schooling they have received compared with the seven clear winners.

If I had to pick out one source of this discrepancy, I would blame the rise of what might be called pulp education. The schools that produce the strong candidates are, generally speaking, those that teach the traditional "hard" subjects at A-level. The schools that have opted for "softer" subjects - or trendier A-level boards - gravely handicap their pupils' chances of attending an elite university.

Yet there is no doubt about which way the tide is flowing. Last year's A-level statistics saw a continuing decline in the number of entries for physics and mathematics, of the order of 4 per cent (the previous year the figure was 6 per cent). Entries for psychology rose 13 per cent, while candidates for sports studies went up by more than a third. To put it another way, the total entry for maths and physics was equal to the total entry for communication studies, expressive arts, home economics, media studies, political studies, psychology, sociology and sport.

That has had its effects at university level. Applications for media studies courses rose by 54.5 per cent this year, overtaking demand for maths places.

The implication of this trend for Oxford and Cambridge is clear. So long as we do not offer such superficially alluring courses, our pool of potential applicants seems likely to stagnate, and perhaps even to decline. To give a single example, I know of one applicant this year, offered an unconditional place to read English at Oxford, who is considering turning it down to do media studies at Birmingham instead.

If this becomes more common, the fate of traditional subjects such as classics and chemistry may yet lie in store for all Oxbridge disciplines. The ratio of places to applications in those two subjects already exceeds 60 per cent, so steep has been the decline in the number of applicants.

What this means is that Oxford and Cambridge are becoming increasingly traditionalist institutions, teaching traditional subjects to the best products of traditional schools. Now, that is all right by me. But I am a notorious educational conservative and I suspect it is not all right by most of my colleagues, who harbour the politically correct desire to make the undergraduate body more "socially representative". In the pursuit of this goal, they recently voted overwhelmingly to abolish the entrance examination, one of the last vestiges of the colleges' distinctive admissions system - despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that this will make the process of selection significantly less objective.

I cannot help wondering with trepidation what fresh "reforms" they will come up with in the new year, once they realise that this alone will not end the over-representation of the traditional (and mostly independent) schools at Oxbridge. Already, we have created a heavily over-subscribed course in economics and management. How long before the cry goes up for a degree course in media studies?

Ah well, I suppose I should look on the bright side. At least I will be well placed to apply for the chair.

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