Where I come from, it is not uncommon to view institutions like Oxford and Cambridge through the prisms of class stereotyping. Indeed, for a working class, northern city like Sunderland, which has suffered deep injustices and hardships in its modern history, these academic institutions are elitist, snobbish and out of touch enclaves filled with wealthy people who know little, and care little, for those in the struggling former mining and shipbuilding communities. This image of course, is not exclusive to the North alone, hence last week Labour MP David Lammy openly accused Oxbridge of “Social Apartheid” and condemned the two Universities for failing to admit a more “diverse” range of students both regionally and racially.
With 100 MPs then following Lammy in writing a letter to both Oxbridge Vice Chancellors insisting they diversify their admissions processes, the pressure has been turned up. However, as an Oxford postgraduate student, a working-class northerner who was educated in a state comprehensive school, the experience of my journey has taught me that this so called “elitism” and “prejudice” here do not exist. For the student who truly merits it, there are no “barriers”, it’s not about what your class, income or race is, it’s about who you are and your own initiative. This article is not to big up my own achievements, rather, it’s to set straight the simple message that if I can do it, so can you.
Whilst it is true to say that with my background, I am indeed a rare species here at Oxford, nevertheless, I am here because I worked for it, showing ambition, determination and sheer will against the many challenges I faced in life. Growing up on a council estate did not hinder my thirst for knowledge and my curiousity to learn about the world, nor did the teachers who initially believed I was only worthy of a “C” grade at GCSE and put me in groups with disruptive students, or for that matter, my peers who made my comprehensive school years difficult. What mattered above all was that I was enthusiastic and deeply passionate about the topics I studied and eventually, this translated into academic excellence.
Soon enough I had achieved outstanding results at A-level in Philosophy, Politics and History, moving onto Durham University, (another institution often derided as “elite”) and then Oxford. I had achieved it all despite the so called “class” and “regional” disadvantages that are being spoke of today. Again, although it is true of course that most of those around me have come from wealthier backgrounds with access to better resources and opportunities growing up, at no point have I ever felt disadvantaged or unable to “compete” with these people because of that. At the end of the day, money doesn’t even come into it, because it is all about the type of student you choose and aspire to be; mind really can overcome matter in this incidence.
Therefore, there is no reason that working class young people cannot rise up, work hard and aspire to attend Oxbridge or other elite Universities be it in the UK or around the world. The only way to “break” these “class barriers” are to remind ourselves that they are social constructions that do not exist and can be overcome by our own efforts. It is not the elite Universities themselves that are keeping working people down, it is the pessimistic culture of Class Warfare, negativity and entitlement. Too many young people in the North of England and other poorer regions grow up being taught to loathe and fear Oxbridge, that these are places are “out of reach”. They are soaked in crude stereotypes such as the Bullingdon Club, Old Boarding School Cultures and so on. People responded to my admission telling me that if I went there I would be shunned, bullied and rejected, but the truth is, it’s all nonsense!
Whilst yes, there should be more working class and ethnic minority students at Oxford, that is not because they are being “rejected”, “discriminated against” or are “disadvantaged” education wise, it is because so many do not have the will to aspire to it, or they are simply taught not to. There is no conspiracy here, if you are good enough and show that endeavour, they will take you. Nobody is naturally or fatally stupid, the key is getting the working class to believe they can excel and that yes, they can do this, rather than being lost in the culture of entitlement and depression which plagues so many communities.
Therefore, to diversify the Oxbridge admissions process would certainly damage the credibility of the world’s two leading institutions and burden it with a vain tokenism which would result in some merited students genuinely missing out. I am proud that I am here at Oxford as a working-class northerner, and I am prouder that I am here because of merit, not because I am here solely to fill a quota.