In 2018 I conducted a research project, titled “is there a future for Oxbridge?”, as part of my Educational Research MPhil at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education. Upon employing Weber’s (2013 ) critique on the bureaucratisation of society as a framework for interrogating the legitimacy of the ‘leading minority’ status assigned to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, I undertook an empirical investigation into the manner in which Cambridge’s status is perceived by self-identifying under represented students at the university. Initially, the project acted as a coping mechanism following a series of negative experiences in my first term of study. Nonetheless, these emotional attachments helped me in producing honest work that was unforgiving and relentless in its criticality. Moreover, my personal connection with the topic did not support me in anticipating the ideas expressed by the project’s participants, who called not only for an end to ‘elite’ universities but to conversations concerning the inequalities produced by this eliteness. Presented here is a brief review of these findings, with attention dedicated to exploring what it means to ‘shut it’- it being both Oxbridge and the interest surrounding these institutions – down. I hope to expand upon this discussion as part of the Working Class 2020 conference by presenting more fully the work produced by the participants as part of the project’s engagement with creative methods.
Status as frauds
Though it is not an unprecedented claim, it is still certainly daring to suggest that Oxbridge universities are, quite frankly, frauds in crowns gowns. As is argued here, however, the frequently presumed and competitively recognised “elite”, ‘leading’ and “excellent” labels assigned to Oxbridge have perhaps not been earned, as per a legal-rationale authority (Weber, 2013), but instead derive from Oxbridge’s capacity to manipulate opinion and competitive mechanisms through traditional means such as namesake, tradition, alumni and finances. Examples of this capacity include but are by no means limited to: the acclaim Oxbridge have received in TEF for their small-group teaching models, models that exceed the expense of current tuition fees (The University of Oxford, 2017); undergraduate application procedures that begin and end months ahead of other universities, and the upholding of exclusionary admissions criteria that translate into league-table success – bearing in mind the University League Table placings are partially determined on entry standards, the number of good honours degrees awarded and graduate prospects (The Complete University Guide, n.d). Oxbridge’s “leading” status is thusnot one that other institutions (including those in the Russell Group. See Adams and Greenwood (2018) for a financial breakdown) can realistically compete against, meaning attempts to frame this status as earned through fair competition are somewhat fraudulent.
Oxbridge’s traditionally-awarded “world leading”status is exacerbated by policy discourses that relate university admission to the illusions of meritocracy, ability, perseverance and choice. By placing responsibility on the prospective student, for instance, such discourses allow universities to continue prioritising the means by which status is accrued over genuine efforts to widen participation. In the Oxbridge context, a consequence of this prioritisation is the over representation of students from white-privileged, well-educated (accounting for the highly stratified nature of state education), middle-class backgrounds (see University of Cambridge, 2020 and University of Oxford, 2010). Yet because the described flawed competitive metrics supports Oxbridge’s masquerade as an“elite” institution, the institutions continue to garner attention and have little difficulty in terms of student recruitment. There is thus little incentive to revisit or question their role in the creation of these disparities. In an open letter about admissions, Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor, Graham Virgo, states:
We are proud to be amongst the very best and highest achieving institutions in the world … We will not waver in our commitment to academic excellence (Virgo, 2018).
That said, the universities are often commended for improving representation in their offer and admission statistics (see Booth, 2019; Adams, 2020; Turner, 2020. There are no prizes for guessing which institutions these journalists attended). On the surface, this indicates that Oxbridge are putting in some form of graft. Nevertheless, this denies that debates surrounding admission are essentially win-win. When these universities fail to admit students from non-white, state school or low-income backgrounds, this absence is discussed in relation to an exclusivity steeped in notions of “excellence”. Hiding behind meritocracy, excluded groups are scapegoated for either not making the mark or not applying in the first instance. When Oxbridge do improve their admission statistics, these statistics demonstrate the progressive nature of the institutions. Status is accrued either way. This is further complicated by the shrewd reporting of admissions statistics. Dividing between state, state-selective and private schools, ignores the extent of inequality in the state sector (Reay, 2017). An increase in state admissions, then, does not mean that more “disadvantaged” students are being reached, particularly in light of the limited reach of college-level access officers (Lally and Hancock, 2018).
That several access triumphs and efforts are inherently flawed and practically limited is indicative of an ongoing refusal to put in the work. For instance, although Cambridge reports that the number of black students at the university is now proportionate to the general population (The University of Cambridge, 2019a), the increased number of applications from this group is related to the contribution of a scholarship by rapper, Stormzy. Further support for this assertion can be observed in Cambridge’s adoption of the UCAS adjustment scheme, which provides a ‘second chance’ to those disadvantaged applicants rejected at interview (The University of Cambridge, 2019b). On the surface, this scheme acknowledges the prejudice embedded within the universities long-standing admissions systems. That said, is existence insinuates that offering places to these students upon interview is less favourable than reiterating the class differences by requiring that they – unlike their privileged peers – prove themselves in exams first.
Oxford’s forthcoming programme, ‘Opportunity Oxford’ is arguably more pro-active. Opportunity Oxford will provide additional support to offer holders who are expected to achieve the necessary entry requirements but who come from disadvantaged backgrounds (University of Oxford, n.d.). While this responds to research discussing the difficulties disadvantaged students face upon taking up a place at high status institutions (e.gMaslin, 2016; Stubbs and Murphy, 2020), the project is somewhat patronising in that it preserves elements of the university that make participation difficult. It simply begins the process of assimilation earlier. Programmes such as this and Adjustment Cambridge thus have the potential totoy with aspirations and futures, all while depicting the universities as generous, understanding and forgiving of those who didn’t ask to be forgiven and whose only offence has been being born outside of the strict boundaries of the traditional image of the academically‘excellent’ student.
It seems, then, as though the graft of widening participation and accessis left either to disadvantaged but dedicated young people, or to those outside of the university. Per the manipulation of namesake, tradition and financial endowment in competitive metrics, Oxbridge get away with it. For them, it is not their fault that they attract so many applications; it is not their fault if schools fail to encourage their pupils to apply; it is not their fault that they, institutions who thrive off of ‘academic excellence’, possess seemingly no capacity to respond to, adjust for, or openly disparage the obvious and fundamental flaws within discourses concerning competition and meritocracy. For Oxbridge, it is not their fault that their status is fraudulent. To note, the accusations made here have not made for the sake of demanding better forms of competition. Instead, they have been made for the sake of disrupting taken-for-granted forms authority. Indeed, and as is now argued, dismantling the throne of manipulation on which Oxbridge sits requires a dedication to exposing both the inevitable inequalities produced by elite education and the reproductive and restrictive nature of all forms of university hierarchy.
“Shut it down”
Following a critique similar to the one above,the project in question sought to examine the manner in which Oxbridge’s status is perceived by underrepresented students at the universities. Crucially, the research deviated from academic interest in feelings of “belonging” among “working class”, “disadvantaged”, “first generation”, “non-traditional” student groups. Traditionally, this interest relates social background to educational experience, insinuating that the problem lies with the individual, with their experiences, with their inability to belong, and not with institutional inequalities or unjust policy and educational structures. In comparison, the project examined the manner in which educational structures influence educational experience, focusing on how those who have been undervalued and undermined by educational systems and institutions perceive the legitimacy of those systems.
To achieve this, six self-identifying nonconventional undergraduate students at the University of Cambridge participated in the co-production of a written screenplay, with the six week long period of screenplay development constituting a form of data collection. Participants controlled screenplay setting and plot, with each participant assigned a character, whose name, look, words, spoken language and dialect they could dictate. At times suitable to them, participants were able to communicate with each another via an interactive document. My input throughout this period extended torelaying my specific research interests, objectives and questions to the participants, and suggesting that each “Act” in the screenplay address one of these questions. The participants decided that the setting would be a formal dinner, one of Oxbridge’s long-standing traditions, describing how the occasion of the formal dinner represented the height of their insecurities and uncomfortablities.
In the screenplay text, participants expressed an awareness of their difference. Through metaphor and plot, they brought attention to their thwarted ability to engage with university lifedue their recognised deviation from the “typical Cambridge student”. Participants elucidated how this deviation presented itself as a sense of inferiority, with this sense deriving from the plethora of direct and indirect messages conveyed by the prevalence of class-based prejudice, racism and racial microaggressions, college-level inequalities and diversity in terms of college ethos, as well as university-wide ignorance about the challenges faced by underrepresented students. Although participants informally discussed theirattempts to navigate their feelings of subordination, one example that made featured heavily in the screenplay text was engaging in active critique against the university. Accordingly, the screenplay features multiple acts of rebellion, including wearing inappropriate clothes to dinner and ignoring dining rules including not leaving the table between graces.
More forceful critiques were also offered in the final text, including two characters’ cries to “shut it [the university] down”. The participants behind these characters disclosed that the screenplay was the first opportunity they had had to consider and then share their opinions on the matter. Yet alongside this revelation was a belief that bringing “an end to Cambridge” would be “impossible”. Reasons cited for this, both in text and during development, included perceived impossibility were the ongoing difficulties with student recruitment and the extensive history of the institution. Two further participants contributed to the discussion, agreeing with the others that Cambridge’s “absolute” status is partially solidified by extensive and ongoing media interest, as well as from blog posts focussing on individual experience and, finally, academic research on the topics of belonging, disadvantaged students and Oxbridge. While I anticipated condemnationof the university, these latter findings were unexpected. Yet, for the participants, one of which referred to the above as a “purge-style fetishization of disadvantage”,the constant attention devoted to the university and its failings successfully frames Cambridge as immoveable. In response to this situation, I approached the participants directly to ensure that they were comfortable with participating in the project. Although they each expressed a desire to continue, three participants reiterated the significance of their opinions.
In spite of this, it might seem as though ongoing attention is imperative to maintaining the momentum required to “shut it down”. Indeed, media and researcher attention to the inequalities perpetuated by Oxbridge are not unwarranted. Oxbridge graduates are disproportionately represented in high status careers, including the media, politics and academia (Sutton Trust, 2019). Moreover, both universities have contributed to the development of colonial processes of knowledge production and have been criticised heavily for their connections with slavery. Despite this, the media and research attention devoted to Oxbridge ignores the experiences of those attending the other 100+ places of HE study in the UK, insinuating that only those at Oxbridge are worthy of attention. While research concerned with students outside of Oxbridge and Russell Group is plentiful, it can still be wondered whether the focus on Oxbridge remains disproportionate and preserves the status of these institutions. The interests of the majority of undergraduates may be neglected not only in terms of direct attention, but in the lack of analysis awarded to the formal and informal university hierarchies that permit Oxbridge’s exclusivity. Furthermore, the constant revisiting of these unacceptable circumstances is underscored by an assumption that “elite” universities can be fixed, that they are inevitable, that – despite centuries of oppression – they are, and will continue to be, beneficial for society.
It can therefore speculated that “shutting it down” requires a preceding shut down of the conversations that feed into negative master narratives. This is not a novel position to take on inequality and backhanded forms of subjugation. Shaun Harper (2009), for example, has responded to work concerning black male students in the USA, laying heavy criticism as the feet of research associating this group with underachievement and disengagement. Since researchers’ claims to act with an ethic of care is contradictory to their refusal to tend to racist and structural barriers to achievement, Harper argues that the occupation with highlighting and resurfacing the described negative associations is itself a racist endeavour. Applying this perspective to the matter at hand suggests that even when conversations surrounding Oxbridge’s access failures and issues surrounding student engagement are framed around the proposition of schemes that seek to alleviate these circumstances, the conversation acts as a reminder to existing students and a warning to potential ones that they go against the accepted grain of privilege.
Similar assertions have been made by Oxbridge studentsoutside of the project at hand. In 2018, Cambridge student, Patrick Sylla, released a video of him freestyle rapping about the underrepresentation of black students within Oxbridge. In the rap he says:
They [the media] insinuate that you can’t enjoy your time here if your skin is brown … How are we ever gonna fix this underrepresentation if we got bare stories but the only one that ever gets sold about us is this? … I feel profiled not by the university but by articles like that (Sylla, 2018, cited in Heyman, 2018).
Comparable apprehensions have been expressed with regards to the ‘Class Act’ society in Oxford, which seeks to provides a space where self-identifying working-class students can talk about ‘class related concerns’. The society has received criticism for excusing elitism rather than confronting it:
Does Oxford really think that the students their institution is designed to erase spend most of their time worrying about what to wear to yet another meaningless black-tie dinner? … the assumption that these might be the apogee of our anxieties only reinforces the cluelessness and privilege from which schemes like this are set up (Rasmussen, 2017).
While the individuals in these examples do not call for an end to ‘elite’ universities as such, they certainly speak of anexasperation with narratives which, irrespective of their initial intentions, send implicit messages regarding what is normal and what is not. It can be wondered then whether discussing belonging maintains the status quo bycreating, highlighting and then reinforcing the almost binary divides between students at these universities, depicting them as either traditional/non-traditional, advantaged/disadvantaged, belong/doesn’t belong, overrepresented/underrepresented, admissible/inadmissible, worthy/unworthy.
Shutting the conversation down
So long as ‘elite’ and exclusive institutions exist, and so long as those ‘elite’ institutions are awarded this label by virtue of when they were formed, it is not unreasonable to argue that inequality will continue to play a part in student-bodies, traditions and curricula. Following this line of argument, and building on what has been discussed, it can be argued that concentrating on Oxbridge’s failures because they are ‘elite’ only further legitimises this status, a status that has been shown to be somewhat fraudulent. It can thus be wondered whether inequality in these “leading” spaces can only be alleviated by starting and then supporting conversations concerning equality in all spaces. In seeking to disrupt this status, effort must be taken to avoid the unintended consequences of conversations surrounding belonging. However, given that Oxbridge thrives off of inequality this admittedly seems a daunting task. From this, a case could perhaps be made forrefusing to engage with critiques regarding Oxbridge. Instead of devoting newspaper headlines, research grants, dissertations, donations and intellectual labour to problematic criticisms of inherently problematic institutions which in turn possess the ability and status to manipulate this critique to their advantage, such silent treatment supports and persuades the redirection of these resources to other institutions, to the majority. Nevertheless, bringing the conversation to a stop will not prevent Oxbridge from recruiting students, from rewarding and creating privilege, from excusing inequalities between individuals and universities. Oxbridge cannot be ignored into oblivion.
Through disrupting and delegitimising the systems that excuse the prevalence of Oxbridge, Oxbridge could perhaps be delegitimised into oblivion, however. On the one hand, HE research is inundated with accusations against widening participation agendas, competitive metrics and university rankings. The issue is that those who could alter policies, Oxbridge graduates no less,simply refuse to listen. On the other hand, little attention has been awarded to the unjust nature of both formal and informal university hierarchies, and that which does address the treat perceives these hierarchies as natural, inevitable. That said, the way things areis not the way things have to be. By reorienting focus, the toxic nature of educational structures can be exposed to the point that the currently deniably is undeniable. This requires future research efforts and discussionto take the uncomfortable, tiresome form of interrogating historically violent assumptions and hierarchies. On a pragmatic level, this involves proposing alternative uses for institutions, buildings, resources. On a personal level, it involves the instigation of conversations that address a different and more difficult set of questions to those typically asked, including:
“Why do we protect or support “elite” universities?”
“Are we trying to fix the unfixable?”
“Who is benefitting from conversations about belonging in relation to contexts designed to be exclusive?”.
This is not to imply that existing work on Oxbridge holds little value. Indeed, the reorientation proposed is indebted to those who have shed light on the extent of the inequalities faced by non-dominant individuals attending “elite” institutions. Moreover, navigating and alleviating the pains caused by elitist systems is arguably crucial in ensuring that individuals have the mental energy to support an ongoing disruption of deeply rooted and stubborn systems of injustice. That measures of alleviation are considered temporary, however, is equally crucial, lest there be risk ofmerely obfuscated or excusing inequality.
I acknowledge that I write this as a first year PhD Education student at Cambridge. The reader might think “well, this is easy for you to say”. And yes, in some ways, it is. Maybe I should have accepted a PhD place elsewhere for this argument to be a genuine call to action. This very criticism is something I hold myself to account for every day and it is perhaps the reason why my current research explores the relationship between subjectivities and resistance. That said, I grew up in an addict-household on a council estate, my school was in special measures for the entire time I was there and I have the same number of first-class degrees (three- BA, MA MPhil) as I do A*-C GCSEs. When I came to Cambridge for my MPhil (scholarship funded) I was told that I was a ‘risk’. Then, upon starting my PhD in October 2019, the VC gave a speech in which he laughed, in-front of my peers, the funder and university-staff, about my proposal on university hierarchies. While I can provide no acceptable excuse for my attendance here other than I really need the unrivalled financial support my scholarship provides, I hope that there is some kind of disruption in following my ‘thank you’ to the university with an unapologetic ‘fuck you’.
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