There was an audible groan from the woman who answered the telephone in Tristram Hunt’s office. I wanted to be sent the statement that Mr Hunt had issued after the newspapers had jumped on a supposedly elitist comment he had made to students at the University of Cambridge. “He didn’t mean the actual 1 per cent, he meant the intellectual 1 per cent,” she protested, with the manner of someone who had fielded many such calls. I think my response surprised her, “Yes, I know. And I agree with him.”
According to a reporter from Varsity, the university newspaper, the former shadow education secretary told a meeting of the Cambridge University Labour Club: “You are the top 1 per cent. The Labour Party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.” Using the phrase the “1per cent” was perhaps unwise. “We are the 99 per cent” is a slogan associated with the anti-capitalist Occupy movement, which campaigns against the riches and excesses of the world’s 1 per cent. But his point was valid. These were a different sort of 1 per cent. Hunt was addressing a very small group of incredibly bright, hard-working young people. A group, who Hunt believed, would be shaping the future of the Labour party.
Typically though, a large number of lazy journalists and tweeters criticised his comments with cries of snobbery and elitism. Perhaps Mr Hunt gets grief because he was also privately educated. But you know what? I wasn’t. I went to a comprehensive and I believe we should champion and encourage intellectual meritocracy. If we don't celebrate Oxbridge why should our young people strive to get the best grades and get into the best universities? Working hard at school should pay dividends in later life.
But every time Oxbridge is lumped in with the gilt-edged privilege of private school, the tireless work of the Oxbridge outreach teams takes a step backwards and one more young person from an ordinary background might think an Oxbridge education is not for them. And that is a tragedy.
Temples of education
The 22 other members of the Russell group may quibble, but Oxford and Cambridge are our two finest universities. They are temples of education where the very brightest and best young people are taught by experts in their fields. Surely it is natural that these young minds go on to successful careers in a variety of fields. Indeed, it is intrinsic in the University of Cambridge's mission statement: “to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence”. Cambridge expects their graduates to contribute, shape and lead.
Rather than criticise an Oxbridge education we should work harder to strengthen the meritocracy. Oxbridge entrance is still flawed. It is depressing that in 2015, 37.8 per cent of successful applicants to Cambridge came from private schools and yet only 7 per cent of schoolchildren up to 16 and 14 per cent of sixth-formers go to private school. Harder work is needed to identify the brightest minds at state schools and encourage young people to access a world-class higher education. We need to tackle the under-representation of ethnic and social groups but this is something both universities are committed to. The Oxford website states that the university is “committed to ensuring that our undergraduate admissions processes identify students with outstanding academic potential and the ability to benefit from an Oxford course whatever their background”.
But what of that clarifying statement from Tristram Hunt? Sadly, perhaps because of the blaze of hostility, he shied away from a defence of his alma mater:
“I am confident that – with the support of committed Labour activists from across the country, and from all walks of life – we can build a strong, credible and forward-looking movement.”
Of course you don’t need an Oxbridge education to lead the country. People come into their own at different times. But I do want the very best people for the job. I don’t care where people honed their skills and discovered their talents – maybe a Russell Group university, maybe during the course of their working life. But some people’s spark of genius is discovered young. We should not shy away from celebrating an Oxbridge education and above all, we must stop conflating privileged private schools with the academic rigour of Oxbridge.
Dr Laura-Jane Foley is a writer, playwright, art historian and lecturer. She tweets at @laurajanefoley