The inside story of how England’s oldest university picks its students, and why it needs to changeby Alan Rusbridger / September 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
The opening scene of the latest Abba jukebox musical, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, is set in one of Oxford University’s ancient panelled dining halls. Lily James is, in flashback, the young Donna, graduating from New College (founded in 1379). In place of a speech she rips into a raunchy rendering of “When I Kissed the Teacher,” which soon has even the vice chancellor (Celia Imrie) casting off her inhibitions to join in.
The Oxford backdrop (a scene co-written by Richard Curtis, Christ Church) is entirely gratuitous. Donna’s Oxford education is irrelevant to the rest of the movie, which mainly takes place on the Aegean island of “Kalokairi.” But Oxford is—as in Inspector Morse or Brideshead Revisited—an internationally recognisable brand. It is the essence of England—as classic, in its own way, as Aston Martin or Burberry.
It also signifies exclusivity and elitism. Every year more than 18,000 young people apply to follow Donna through the ivy-clad doorways, but only 3,200 make it. Of these, just 2,600 live in the UK. In numerical terms, an Oxford education is always going to be for the few, not the many. The question of who gets to be among the small number of undergraduates admitted is a topic of ever-consuming interest—and, whatever the answer, some will likely see it as a symbol of unacceptable privilege.
A place at Oxford matters beyond symbolism. The badge of an Oxbridge degree will, on past form, take you far. Three quarters of our judges; nearly two thirds of our permanent secretaries; half our diplomats and newspaper columnists went to Oxford or Cambridge, along with a third of BBC executives; a quarter of all MPs, and nearly 40 per cent of the House of Lords. All compared with less than one per cent of the UK public as a whole. No wonder there is a long queue at the door.
But who gets through? The recent release of data on Oxford admissions pulled back the curtain on the choices individual colleges and faculties make, and fed familiar criticisms about the social and ethnic slant. One of the university’s most persistent critics, Tottenham MP and a former higher education minister David Lammy, bluntly summed up his view of the…