Magazine article The Spectator

Eviscerating Oxford

Magazine article The Spectator

Eviscerating Oxford

Article excerpt

OXFORD University seems to be on New Labour's hit list. It is said that Baroness Blackstone's great hope with the Labour landslide of May 1997 was to be appointed a Foreign Office minister so that she could fulfil her ambition to eviscerate the diplomatic service. Thwarted on being appointed minister for higher education, she consoled herself with the thought that at least she could eviscerate Oxford and Cambridge. As I retire after some eight years as a Head of House, I ask myself how successful she has been.

The British suffer because they have little idea what universities are for. They are confused about the difference between excellence and elitism, and between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Since Tony Blair adopted the agenda of John Smith without his vision, New Labour has been running a poor man's Cultural Revolution, attacking the icons of the establishment without any long-term alternative. Oxbridge has suffered along with the civil service, the medical profession and the legal professions. Since all societies Marxist, capitalist and even presumably the Third Way - require something which other societies are not embarrassed to call an elite, it remains to be seen who will play this role in Cool Britannia. Beyond Geri Halliwell it is difficult to see.

Oxford is a maddening place. It is inward-looking and complacent. But it provides a superb undergraduate education, and in some areas a good graduate education. It also produces serious research.

No doubt Oxford is in considerable need of reform, but since 1945 there has been a remarkable process of democratisation. It has become open to first-rate academic talent, irrespective of background. The problem has been that academic preparation in the state sector has been in steady decline. Different Labour governments - sometimes with the tacit support of Conservatives - have destroyed the academic infrastructure in the secondary schools, the grammar schools and the direct-grant schools. Whatever the social justifications, it has become much more difficult to run a serious academically oriented university in England. The dumbing down of A-levels, much as it is denied, is a reality which means that many students no longer have the academic background that was once the basis of an Oxford honours degree. In admissions, Oxford does reasonably well with sixth-form colleges and trendy comprehensives; with the `bog standard comprehensive' it does poorly. New Labour assumes, nonsensically, that this is Oxford's fault rather than the fault of poor secondary education. Oxford has discouraged the third year of sixth form and a rigorous admissions exam in order to help state schools. The changes have harmed Oxford without significantly helping state-school students.

Oxford's sometimes embarrassed efforts to be socially inclusive, rather than looking to reforms in secondary education, make it politically vulnerable. Gordon Brown was thus able to engage in vindictive attacks on Magdalen over the Laura Spence case, and this enabled members of the Cabinet from Mo Mowlam to John Prescott to attack elitism in the leading universities. Universities are, however, elite institutions. Their undergraduate programmes are designed to train leaders. Last winter we had part of the Cabinet demanding that Oxford admit a wider socio-economic range of students, and another part of the Cabinet, led by Robin Cook, announcing that Oxbridge students would be discriminated against in the foreign service. …

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