Does UK’s ‘Oxbridge’ Need to Take a Second Look at Image?

If the top British universities, Cambridge and Oxford, are serious in their plans to increase class diversity of their student bodies, the first thing they need to address is the fact that their “toff” image could be a turn-off for talented students who don’t come from upper-class families. Professor Robert Lethbridge, the Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, said that if the schools don’t take a second look at how they present themselves to the nation, they’ll continue to be easy targets for both politicians and demagogues decrying “social immobility and inherited privilege.”

Lethbridge’s comments come as a response to a recently published report by the Sutton Trust that found teachers from state schools who are reluctant to advise their best pupils to apply to either of the two prestigious schools, on the grounds that they were too elitist. The findings have bolstered the repeated attacks by the government that the universities weren’t doing enough to enroll more graduates of the country’s state schools.

But Prof Lethbridge insisted Oxford and Cambridge could not “try any harder to reach out to applicants to every background in this country and every kind of school”.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he said: “I think we need to constantly stress that, at the very top of our education system, we are utterly meritocratic. We need to counter the self-deprecatory dimension of Englishness and we need to no longer retail the Brideshead Revisited, toff image of Oxford and Cambridge which some uninformed people find as a lazy target.”

Lethbridge delivered his remarks as part of a celebration marking a ten year anniversary since the first students graduated from a program, funded by a £210 million donation by the Gates Foundation, to help promising international pupils attend Cambridge. Since the program’s establishment, over 1,000 students have completed a period of study at the university, and every year it attracts over 4,000 applicants for only 90 available spots.

Lethbridge contrasted the eagerness of international students to aim for the best, with the anti-intellectual attitude that seems to prevail in Britain. He blamed the “no one should fail,” mindset for continuing attacks on both schools.

Prof Lethbridge said political parties had a “particular prevalence for choosing statistics which suggest social immobility and inherited privilege” at Oxbridge but insisted that “every politician’s statement on this subject over the last 10 years has been shown to be factually incorrect”.

He added that unless the universities themselves worked harder to dispel the erroneous image of the schools, talented students were bound to continue to hesitate in choosing Cambridge or Oxford as their university. People had a completely wrong idea of the atmosphere prevailing at the schools, he said, something that was obvious from the reactions of new students upon their first arriving on campus.

“When students come to Cambridge, they are absolutely astonished that it bears no resemblance to what they saw on TV and we have got to change that image.”