Why an Oxbridge cabinet needn’t be ‘elitist’

I feel a kind of duty as an undergraduate at Oxford University to defend the Oxbridge institution as a whole. Today, there have been lots of articles after the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that the UK is deeply elitist and that top jobs are more often that not held by Oxbridge graduates and those that attended private schools. This Huffpost article is just one of many. However, although I don’t dispute the data, the situation isn’t quite as dire as many of the articles make out.

Personally, I think that half of the report does touch on an important issue – many top jobs, including 36% in the current Cabinet, are held by people who attended private schools, whereas only 7% of the population as a whole went to private schools. This quite clearly shows a bias towards those who have been able to pay inordinate amounts of money for a marginally better education. On the other hand, although 59% of the Cabinet went to either Oxbridge or Cambridge, it is worth considering that students are admitted to the Oxbridge institutions based on merit, rather than how much they can pay. 

Although representation is obviously an important aspect of government – and this is dealt with via individual constituency elections, allowing people to have their say over who speaks for them in Parliament – it can’t be an awful fact that just over half of the Cabinet went to two of our very best universities. In fact, Oxford was ranked joint 2nd in the world (in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-14), and Cambridge was 7th. Along with Imperial College London (10th), they make up the only three UK universities in the top 20. Surely having 59% of the Cabinet certified as some of our best-educated politicians is a good thing?

Actually, the report went some way to acknowledging this, but it also argued that the disproportionate number of Oxbridge graduates and ex-private school pupils in top jobs suggests a lack of social mobility in the UK. I again agree with the private school part of this. No job should be accessible by money, and in an indirect way this is what being able to pay for private schooling allows. However, this doesn’t quite stand for Oxbridge. Although, as in the Cabinet, there are a disproportionate number of private school pupils at Oxbridge, there are also a lot of students who attended state schools. And because both Oxford and Cambridge admit people on merit, a state school pupil who is equally as clever as a private school pupil will theoretically be just as likely to get into one of these universities. 

Unfortunately, this will not always be the case, but not because of Oxbridge, their access policies, or any kind of elitism. It is because many state school pupils do not get offered enough help with their personal statements and other aspects of the application, or enough preparation for the Oxbridge interviews. This is a major consideration at private schools, but some state school pupils might not even be aware that they could get into Oxford or Cambridge. There is a problem of social mobility here, but it is not Oxbridge that is at fault. In fact, from my knowledge of access programs at Oxford, they are doing an awful lot to widen diversity at Oxford, in terms of ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic background. 

I of course don’t believe that jobs and careers should be gained through money or status. However, education, alongside other factors like experience, is clearly an important consideration. Although someone does not need to have attended university to gain success, as other qualities are also important, having graduated from one of the best universities in the world is clearly an indicator of someone’s significant intelligence and admirable abilities, both of which should be considered good qualities to find in one’s leaders. The clear private school elitism should be addressed, but I don’t believe we should be complaining about some of our brightest university graduates having a say in how our country is run. They have all been elected by us, the voters, and surely if we didn’t want them in the Cabinet, we shouldn’t have voted for them as MPs in the first place?

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