Care about social mobility? Don't send your kids to Oxbridge

Our obsession with just two elite institutions is a distraction from enacting real change in how people get on in life

May 24, 2022
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Graduates from St John's College, Cambridge. Image: Geoffrey Robinson / Alamy Stock Photo

Over the past few weeks, a discussion has rumbled on off the back of comments by Stephen Toope, the vice chancellor of Cambridge, who in an interview with the Times said that the university intended “to reduce over time the number of people who are coming from independent school backgrounds.” Some have complained that this betrays a selective bias that goes against the spirit of meritocracy. Others, like Sam Freedman, have argued that private schools should stop acting like they were ever entitled to send dozens of pupils to Oxbridge in the first place. Now even the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has pushed back against Toope, saying he is against tilting “the system away from children who are performing,” regardless of whether they attend private or state school.

This obsessive debate around Oxford and Cambridge admissions will never go away. One royal commission in 1922 argued that who gets access and who doesn’t has been an ongoing problem ever since the Reformation, when the flow of monks and friars into the colleges stopped and “the proportion of country gentlemen’s sons increased.” But in more recent times, the terms of the admissions debate have changed little, with the same underlying assumptions never questioned by either side.

For whatever the disagreements, today we expect a state school pupil getting a place at an Oxbridge college to represent the high watermark of social mobility. But to my mind, all sides on this issue are adhering to the same misconceptions about the nature of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is in many ways a laudable ideal—and given that most high-achieving state school students still do not even apply for Oxford or Cambridge, absolutely more should be done to encourage them as a matter of course. But are we misunderstanding the role of education as society’s “great leveller”? And are university admissions a useful way to think about social mobility, or even meritocracy?

Between the 1960s and 1990s, state school admittance to Oxbridge surged for the first time: having been stuck at around 20 per cent for most of the first half of the century, by the late 1960s two-thirds of all entrants had come from state schools. But this surge also coincided with the era—starting in the late 1970s—when overall inequality rose to the dramatic levels that continue to define our society today. And although state admittance to Oxford and Cambridge has now returned to its original record highs (standing at 67 and 68 per cent in 2021 respectively), you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that inequality has tanked as a result.

Meanwhile the UK remains one of the most socially immobile countries in the developed world, behind only Switzerland and the United States. Seventy-two per cent of our senior civil servants now come from privileged backgrounds, an increase on 67 per cent in 1967. And it feels like the overall ratio of “snakes to ladders” in our society is going to get much worse: absolute poverty will likely rise, with no progress expected over the course of this parliament. University College London predicts that those aged 19-34 could be worse off than their parents’ generation over the course of their lifetimes.

A survey of 5,000 people conducted by the government’s Social Mobility Commission in 2020 found that our personal attitudes towards social mobility mirror this grim reality. Most tellingly, while many surveyed believed they were better educated than their parents, this had not “translated into improved outcomes in their careers, income and housing”—and young people in particular felt they had done worse than their parents. Seventy-seven per cent said that there remain large divides between social classes.

Never mind delivering it, social mobility is notoriously tricky to measure—seen, if at all, only in the rear-view mirror. Even looking at just state vs private school performance hides the great disparities that exist within state schools alone. But as somebody who went to what may be disparagingly called a “post-92” university, I wonder whether focusing on who gets to attend one of two old elite institutions is a red herring—or something that actively stops us from achieving social mobility in a meaningful way.

It’s the UK’s Olympian attitude to education—where the only thing that matters is who makes it onto the podium of the “best” institutions—that is part of the problem. Because making it to Oxbridge is not really about access to high-quality education—it’s about maintaining pre-existing networks of influence. Perhaps encouraging people to go through the same two institutions that have helped stratify society over the centuries has merely reinforced the status quo as the natural order of things.

This hunch chimes with the attitudes of others my age. One survey this year by the New Statesman showed that while younger people are more likely than older generations to feel like they have personally experienced upwards mobility, they also see that mobility in different terms. Compared to their elders, people aged 18-34 were more likely to put career success down to family and personal connections, putting more emphasis on them than their educational background. Among the younger part of that group (those under 24), these factors were considered marginally more important even than their own work ethic.

We will have to wait and see how these shifting attitudes translate later on in our lives. Simply putting more weight on how class and connections give people a leg-up in life doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to do anything about it. Like America’s temporarily embarrassed millionaires who are dead set against taxing the wealthy, we may prefer to keep things as they are to avoid hampering our own chances—a phenomenon that some call preserving the “glass floor.”

Though personally I’m not willing to settle for the status quo. Because can anyone seriously believe that so many people at the top of government (nearly two-thirds of permanent secretaries and around 40 per cent of the House of Lords), the judiciary (three quarters of judges) and the media (half of newspaper columnists) should come from the one per cent who attend one of two universities—or even, as is the case with many of our politicians, take the exact same degree? Monocultures like this are seldom healthy and never natural. It’s about time Britain did something about it.