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Don't blame Oxbridge for wanting the best

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22 Nov 2006

Evening Standard

I ought to be applauding proposals to make Oxford, Cambridge and other 'top' universities take more poor students by threatening them with millions of pounds in cuts in research funding. For the social elitism of universities like Oxford and Cambridge is a subject close to my heart.  More than 30 years ago I turned up for my first term at Newnham College Cambridge. My suitcase was full of polyester suits purchased and lovingly packed by my mother. She herself had left school in rural Jamaica at age 14 and had not the faintest idea what stylish undergraduates wore.

My head was full of naive notions about the essential egalitarianism of British society, probably because the only newspaper we read at home was the Daily Mirror. The polyester suits went in days, to be replaced by cheesecloth shirts and jeans. And my innocence about the British class system went almost as quickly. It is true that Oxbridge still takes relatively few numbers of working-class students. But this is partly because working-class students do not apply. I have spent time recently counselling young black women from Hackney whose schools want them to apply to Cambridge, but the girls themselves were refusing. One said it was not 'diverse' enough for her. Another was being pressured by her mother not to apply because the mother did not want her to leave home.

Admissions tutors should make allowances for students' personal circumstances; a boy from a comprehensive in Brixton with three Bs at A-level may well have more talent than a boy with three A*'s from a more privileged background. But most universities are already doing this; it is in their interests to spot potential. To go further and force universities to accept patently underperforming children is unwise.  The real problem is the school system, which has damaged the potential and study skills of far too many working-class children long before they even think of applying to university. Universities should not be penalised and their research work threatened just because too many schools are failing their pupils.

I went to university on a full grant. It would not have been possible any other way. If the Government was serious about helping more working-class students to access higher education it would abolish tuition fees, bring back full maintenance grants and make sure that more of our secondary schools are as good as the state grammar school I attended all those years ago. It enabled me to go up to Cambridge confident that my grades were as good as anyone's (even if my wardrobe was a bit dodgy).


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