Oxford must earn taxpayers' cash;Letter to the Prime Minister

15th October 1999 at 01:00
Oxford hopeful Nada Farhoud wants Tony Blair to address his old university's elitist image.

Dear Mr Blair

As an Oxford graduate yourself I would like you to reassure me about something.

I am beginning to feel rather isolated because I am the only person from my school applying to Oxford. Does that really make me so unusual? I know that I have named my pet chickens after members of your Cabinet and was once a member of the Young Communist party but surely these are only the quirks of youth rather than an indication of insanity.

I have asked my friends, who are equally able in their chosen subjects, why they are all applying to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

A common concern is that "Oxford is full of public school students". Entry statistics show a consistent bias in favour of independent schools and consistent under-representation of comprehensive school students.

Eton College still sends one third of its old boys to Oxford, while the highest achieving state schools struggle to scrape together more than 2 per cent.

Can Oxford be blamed for this apparent public school bias in undergraduate admissions? I am sure that Oxford tutors are well aware of these figures and realise that they are losing some excellent applicants. They need to respond not only to the finding of the recent investigation into the Oxford selection process but do so quickly.

The six other Oxbridge applicants in my year group have chosen Cambridge because "Oxford is biased against comprehensives like ours".

If this view is accurate then Oxford cannot possibly say that it is educating the best and brightest. Applicants at state schools also believe they face a further disadvantage. With far fewer teachers at comprehensives having been through the system themselves, their pupils are less aware of the differences between colleges.The feeling is that it is generally a matter of pot luck whether you choose the college which is right for you, unless, of course you have a contact who can give a breakdown of the ethos and the culture of that particular college.

Then there is the interview process, which seems so daunting, so drawn out and so off-putting to my peers. Perhaps the "secret garden" of the real interview process could be made available to all of us rather than only to those in contact with suitably experienced staff.

Much more worrying to me are the rumours that have been floating in my direction from the Eton summer school which I attended. Apparently "it is not unusual for tutors to telephone schools after the A-level results have been issued to see if there are any suitable sixth formers who could take up any unfilled places" - and no prizes for guessing what sort of schools receive these calls. If the admissions policy follows this route then it is simply incompatible with an institution that claims to be a meritocracy. Wouldn't you agree Mr Blair?

In government Labour has emphasised the principle that access should be based on ability and not ability to pay, but for many it is felt that access to education at Oxford is not based upon ability alone. If Labour is to meet its goal on education then Oxford, as well as failing schools, must also make the grade, whether by proving these myths to be wrong or reforming admissions procedure.

If it refuses to address what amounts to the exclusion of many applicants from state schools then the extra funding they receive should be redirected to institutions which can demonstrate that they seriously believe that access to education should be based on ability.

So there you are. I am sure these impressions and fears and based on assumptions and prejudice, but the problem is that the myth has become the reality. Do you not think your alma mater should do something about its image?

Now there's a job for another old boy perhaps.... I am sure Mr Mandelson would be able to help them. There again to modernise the Labour party is one thing - but Oxford?

Yours sincerely

Miss Nada Farhoud

PS Despite my concerns I am still applying to read modern history and politics at St Catherine's College. I hope this will open the gateway to another so-called elitist institution... the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Nada Farhoud is in Year 13 at Wootton Upper School in Bedford. She was the 1999 winner of the political writing competition sponsored by the Citizenship Foundation and Motorola.

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