But it's just not cricket...

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
Oxbridge bias? What's unfair, says Matthew Holehouse (pictured), is that there are not enough places for everyone

My great uncle was apparently rejected by Oxford in the Twenties because his father was a miner. If only he could read the papers today.

Popular wisdom has it that top universities are discriminating against the independent sector. I'm not a tutor and so there's no way that I could know. Nor, for that matter, could anyone else.

Yet the rumours abound. I constantly hear stories of bright friends-of-friends who've applied, with good GCSEs, Duke of Edinburgh awards and promises of success from teachers and families, and still fail to get in.

A sense of mild outrage and injustice lingers over UCAS forms. At an Oxford open day last month, while welcomed by dons who seemed to want the most teachable students whomever they were, I felt an edge of resentment from some applicants. "Well, of course you liked St John's," a girl from a famous public school told me. "They always give state school students an easy ride." I don't blame disgruntled candidates. If you're set on a certain university, and there's pressure from your school and three generations of family heritage and you're reading everything you can to improve your chances, then you might resent any interference that may hinder your application.

I can blame some of the Press though, for whom the unfairness of the selection process is an annual story. Even if there is some discrimination - which, following the open day tutors' reassurances, I strongly doubt - much of the media has failed to produce evidence to substantiate claims.

Wheeling out stories of unsuccessful captains of rugby with five As at AS-level proves nothing. As the tutors say, Oxbridge cannot afford to offer places to Good Chaps as they could 30 years ago. There are more applicants than ever (roughly four for every place), and I think we're probably better read and better thinkers than sixth-formers have ever been.

It all means that a lot of good, privately educated people have to be rejected. As do a lot of good, state educated people. Everyone will feel they've been unfairly treated, because turning away good candidates due to a shortage of places is, by nature, unfair.

And so the case looks weak. No one has a right to a place at Oxford or Cambridge any more. People who've not had to really struggle for anything find they don't have the easy opportunities that their fathers had. And, rather than face the fact that the comprehensive system they've paid to avoid actually works and is producing good, successful candidates, they're calling foul.

It wasn't that they failed the interview, but that the "socialists" in the Government stacked the odds against them. They're targets of a New Labour conspiracy to destroy the upper-middle classes. It's social engineering, it's class war, and it's just not cricket.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there really is a covert effort to widen the door for the comprehensives. If so, I'm not going to complain. However, nothing has been proven beyond the fact that it's becoming harder for clever people to get into top universities.

So state students have their achievement diluted by the dirty rumour that their Oxbridge places are worth less than those of the public school students. That could set the fight for equality in education back years.

Matthew Holehouse has just finished Year 12 at Harrogate grammar school.

His column will run throughout the summer

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