Oxford? Sorry prof, I'm into media studies

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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband and David Cameron  

Cameron and Miliband should have faith in their bolder policies

Ian Birrell
Andreas Lubitz runs the Airport Race half marathon in Hamburg on 13 September 2009  

Being sensitive to mental health need not lead us to downplay the horror of what Lubitz did

Will Gore
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing