Magazine article The Spectator

A Don's Dilemma

Magazine article The Spectator

A Don's Dilemma

Article excerpt

THERE are few things on which mankind is so well agreed as on the unfairness of admission to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. That agreement does of course disappear as soon as we ask in what way it is unfair. We can distinguish two schools of thought. On the Left, it is an article of faith that the ancient universities grossly favour the wealthy products of private education. The present government actually plans to penalise Oxford and Cambridge by reducing their grants from central funds if they do not admit more undergraduates from comprehensives. Some left-wing thinkers would like to see at least 85 per cent of places reserved for pupils from the state sector. Opinion in the Daily Telegraph, however, both of columnists and of correspondents, is convinced that Oxbridge already has an indefensibly biased policy of favouring comprehensive pupils and is determined to exclude the academically more deserving products of public schools. Perhaps some readers of The Spectator agree.

It is unfortunate that Labour regards us as a bulwark of the Tory establishment, while the Tories prefer to see us, in the case of Oxford at least, as a lot of Reds who snubbed Mrs Thatcher; if only - it would be just as easy - they would exchange perspectives!

It thus seems perfectly natural, when the vice-chancellor of Aberdeen University makes a public plea that state funds should be made available to match money which has been raised by universities' own efforts, that a member of the Commons Education Select Committee should squash the suggestion by saying, as Mr Gordon Marsden did last week: `My worry is that . . . that will lead to universities like Oxford and Cambridge simply getting a lot of money.' The implication is striking: for a couple of the nation's leading universities to get a lot of money would be such an obviously bad thing that we can cheerfully brush aside a serious argument from a virtuous university like Aberdeen. And the money, of course, would be a lot only by insular standards - it would be peanuts by those of the leading American universities with which we are supposed to be able to compete.

Attacked from both sides, we poor dons might simply conclude that we are getting things about right; but that will not really do. As the 1999 intake of freshers arrives, and the procedure for selecting the freshers of 2000 gets under way, it may be helpful to approach these questions from another angle. What, for example, is in it for the dons? What difference does it make to them when they decide to take one candidate and not another? When an applicant is admitted to my college - Balliol I know, as every tutor knows, that he or she can appear in my room for tutorials, week by week, for four years (in some subjects, only three; but that, too, is a long time). That person will come in with an essay to read and to discuss. An idle and recalcitrant pupil is a serious nuisance, as well as a waste of time.

Some people believe that what we most relish is idle and undeserving public-school products. I have been tutor to pupils of that sort. It is no fun to have to listen to an insultingly flimsy essay on some subject close to one's heart, and then to conduct a laboured and one-sided conversation with that supercilious and uninterested young gentleman, its author. I recall a young patrician on whom a highly critical set of reports was read out, in his presence, to the Master of the College. `Well, Mr Soand-So,' said the Master in anxious tones, `those are not very good reports from your tutors. Why do you think they are taking that view of you?' 'I really don't know, Master,' came the drawling reply, `perhaps it's because I'm so rude.... '

But how does a tutor choose pupils who are responsive, industrious and eager to learn? Every year the colleges are faced with a mass of evidence about the sixthformers who have applied to their colleges. It is the job of the tutors to sift that evidence and to produce, in the light of written work, interviews, and references from schools, an order of acceptability. …

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