Oxbridge and the meritocracy myth

The Oxford-Cambridge boat race was a couple of weeks ago. For one half of the Oxbridge graduates, it was an excuse for jolly hockey sticks cheering. For the other, it sparked a soul-searching episode as the predictable lifestyle media leaped over their laptops at the opportunity to show the world what terrible toffs the assembled Oxbridge ranks are.

From the bottom of their collective Pimms glasses, a number of them complained: So what if the country is ruled by an Oxbridge-educated elite? Don’t they know that Oxbridge is, in fact, a meritocracy? Surely we want our country to be ruled by the best, and what does Oxbridge deliver if not the best?

You can see a watered down version of it in this article on The Tab (it’s funny because it’s a tabloid, and Cambridge students are CanTabrigians).

Credit where credit’s due, the writer doesn’t actually state that Cambridge is a meritocracy. But they do say:

“The elite probably shouldn’t solely run the country. I can get behind that message too. But people from Oxbridge aren’t by default less capable of running the country than anyone else. In fact, they’re probably pretty smart and definitely well educated. What’s wrong with that?”

Actually, quite a lot is wrong with that.

Attempting to play down the fact that half our leaders came from the same two universities ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of people’s life experiences aren’t being reflected at the top level of government.

Let’s start with getting in in the first place. You have two 17-year-olds with bright, inquiring minds. One grew up in an upper middle-class family in Guildford. Her parents were happy enough, even if dad sometimes got grumpy and stomped off to the pub. They put her in a school that wasn’t free, but was plenty selective. They bought themselves a car after she left with the extra money. But it was worth it, because that school had a funny knack of turning out straight A students.

Our second 17-year-old went to a school that people called The Dustbin. Dad isn’t around, but then Dad was an arse. Mum got a new boyfriend, and he wasn’t very nice either. So she leaves The Dustbin before time. She has a job and a place to live, although it took a while. But, well, the A levels might have to wait.

How can anyone honestly argue that being in Oxbridge is about merit alone? Sure, there are checks in place to show interviewers when a candidate was at a difficult school, or has been in care, but they freely admit that for some candidates, the gaps in their education are simply too big to patch. And only those who apply can even get that far.

Now, this is not to cast the slightest of aspersions on our Guildfordian. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having the fortune to come from a happy, secure background. But which of these two will grow up with a visceral, lived experience of the systemic problems that everyday people are facing? Which will graduate having occasionally mismanaged her student loan and had to live on beans for a month, or have to live at home for a bit to keep costs down while she commutes to her London internship, and – just possibly – think that now she knows what it means to be poor?

It’s not that having a hard time of it means you understand how to solve society’s problems. It’s that politicians who haven’t had a hard time of it don’t understand, and then make dangerous decisions based on knowledge that isn’t there.

Now, ask what our politicians are actually there for. Call me an idealist, but I would have said they were there to work for the well-being and prosperity of their citizens. To know and fight and eliminate the worst problems facing society; to help those who most need it, for the good of us all.

What’s wrong with being smart? Nothing. What’s wrong with elite education? The fact that not everyone has an equal shot at it. And what’s wrong with elite educated leaders? The fact that their voices probably aren’t the ones we need in power.


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