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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Breaking with Oxbridge elitism
By education correspondent Mike Baker
It was the "Keep Off The Grass" signs that made me realise Oxford University still has much to do to dispel its elitist image.
I was at Christ Church College, Oxford, this week for the launch of the new bursaries scheme which is intended to increase the number of students from poorer homes coming to the university.
It is a further sign that Oxford is trying hard to prove that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, was wrong to accuse it of elitism.
Brown, if you remember, said it was "an absolute scandal" that the bright state-school pupil, Laura Spence, was rejected by Oxford. She subsequently went to Harvard on a £65,000 scholarship.
Brown's criticism was undoubtedly unfair in that it was based on one individual's rejection when he knew nothing about the qualities of her rival applicants.
However, he hit on a wider truth which is that Oxford, Cambridge and a number of other older universities still take a disproportionate number of students from both private schools and from the middle-classes.
Oxford had been trying to rectify this but only in a very gradualist way. It appears to have redoubled its efforts since Brown's attack.
Would the university have come up with this week's bursary scheme if it had not been for that very public attack?
The latest figures show Oxford now takes 55% of its students from state schools and 45% from the independent sector. This represents a slow, but steady, shift towards the state system over the past decade.
But it still does not compare well with national figures which show only around 7% of all children, and about 20% of sixth-formers, are educated in the private sector.
Even when you take achievement levels into account there is a serious imbalance: 65% of the 18 year olds achieving three A grades at A-level come from the state system.
By the way, let's not let Cambridge off the hook - it takes only 52% from state schools.
Bristol, Durham, Exeter and Newcastle universities also take a smaller proportion of state school pupils than comparable institutions, according to a recent report from the Higher Education Funding Council.
I am sure Oxford is genuine in its desire to broaden its intake but I don't think the authorities fully realise why comprehensive school students, particularly from the inner cities, regard it as so "uncool".
While in Oxford this week I talked to some 15 year olds who were there on a "taster" course run by the Aspire Scheme.
It is a fine scheme which tries to break down preconceptions of Oxford amongst pupils at inner-city schools.
When I asked one obviously bright and sparky lad to do a television interview he initially said no, saying people would laugh at his strong Brummie accent.
I wondered how much of this self-conscious embarrassment was induced by a few days in the surroundings of Oxford.
Grammar school lad
As a state school pupil myself many years ago, I rejected the prompting of my school to apply to Oxford because of similar concerns that I would not fit in socially.
Of course, I was wrong to think that way. But 18 year olds aren't always wise.
I was, eventually, persuaded to go to Cambridge and some of my friends there, from northern comprehensives, regarded me as "posh" because I had been to grammar school.
I mention this as a reminder that bursary and access schemes can only do so much to overcome an institution's image problem.
What I saw at Oxbridge over 20 years ago, and still see today, were institutions with rules, conventions and surroundings which are alien to those who have not attended prestigious private schools.
Of course, Oxford can not - and should not - bulldoze its beautiful old buildings. Nor should it sweep away all of its old customs.
But how welcoming is an institution where bowler-hatted porters jump on tourists, or potential students, the moment they step on the grass?
I spent time recently at the University of Michigan. I detected no anxiety there about which lawns you could, or could not, walk on.
No parts of the university were closed to the public (of course, the residential fraternity houses were another matter).
Only in Oxbridge is the right to walk on a lawn reserved for certain levels of the college hierarchy.
When I was at Cambridge they held sherry parties to welcome new students and, bewilderingly, explained how many "exeats" (days out of Cambridge) you were allowed each term. Cambridge had its "bedders", Oxford its "scouts". It was a clubby, exclusive and excluding way to carry on.
This, I suspect, is particularly true for students from urban lower income backgrounds.
If this trend continues then those top universities which lie outside the big conurbations will find they are drawing on a smaller pool of potential students.
That is why Oxford's bursary idea is interesting, although it probably will need to be more generous yet to make a big difference.
After all, although the costs are different, Oxford's £2,000 is paltry compared to Laura Spence's £65,000 from Harvard.
The biggest obstacle, of course, is that British universities do not have the big endowments of the top American institutions.
Nor can they generate income by charging high fees to the majority of undergraduates.
'State of flux'
Our student funding system is still in a state of flux. We have left behind the old, generous system of free tuition and full grants but have not yet settled into a new system which guarantees access for all, including those fearful of going into debt.
The whole system looks wobbly. Scotland has gone its own way on tuition fees and Wales would like to follow but isn't allowed to.
In England, the government is quietly reducing the proportion of students who have to pay tuition fees and has introduced its own opportunity bursaries scheme for students from the inner cities. It all feels a bit experimental at present.
Like Oxford, the whole system will have to be more radical if it is to attract the brightest youngsters from all backgrounds.
The reality is that the poorest quarter of Britain's neighbourhoods still provide just 12% of our university undergraduates.
There is plenty of untapped talent out there.
Mike Baker and the education team welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org although cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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