Revisiting the myth of Oxford: How to be an academic elite, without the elitism

One of the most prestigious universities in the world and a pillar of British culture, Oxford is trying to shake off the label of being a guardian of class privilege. While its student body is increasingly diverse, inertia acts as a counterweight in this complex ecosystem that has been forged over centuries

Debate night at the Oxford Union, one of the most traditional student societies in existence. Controversial and irreverent, it has produced British politicians such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Debate night at the Oxford Union, one of the most traditional student societies in existence. Controversial and irreverent, it has produced British politicians such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.MANUEL VÁZQUEZ
J. A. Aunión

“Don’t go writing just bad things about Oxford, eh?”

In front of a meticulously-trimmed grassy esplanade, just in the front of the medieval stone buildings where, seven centuries ago, Benedictine monks sent their more intelligent brothers to study, stands David Isaac, Provost of Worcester College, one of the 39 colleges that make up one of the the most prestigious universities in the world.

Isaac says goodbye after a quick photo session with EL PAÍS. As he walks away, the warning-request that he has made in an ironic, joking tone remains hanging in the air.

But the truth is that it’s very difficult not to write good things about an institution that is almost 1,000 years old, which occupies top positions in international rankings and is nestled in an idyllic environment in southeastern England. It’s tough to find fault even if someone has gone there to try to see what’s left of that elitist paradise for unredeemed posh people, who are depicted in films such as Saltburn (2023) – directed by Emerald Fennell – or the book Chums: How A Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over The UK (2022), by journalist Simon Kuper, who graduated from Oxford in the 1980s.

After decades of efforts to increase the diversity of its student body and following widespread embarrassment for having helped produce figures such as former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — representative for many of a thoughtless and capricious upper class that believes it has the inherent right to govern the destinies of their compatriots — the reality is that little remains of that posh haven. Or, at least, EL PAÍS has found few of the public displays of ostentation or the vivid contempt for academic effort that Kuper describes in his book, which documents the ruling class’ social clubs at Oxford. He himself acknowledges this at the end of his work, after making several recent visits to the campus of his youth.

Now, this doesn’t mean that a pure meritocracy has triumphed over elitism. There are undoubtedly fewer privileges than ever before, but the wealthiest social classes are still clearly over-represented at Oxford. Those who arrive from private schools make up 31.9% of new undergraduate students, while less than 7% of the U.K. secondary student population studies in these centers. And these statistics don’t even include the growing number of foreign students who, with some exceptions, pay tuition fees of $38,000 a year or more.

While walking through the university’s cobblestone streets, among the monumental architecture, the souvenir shops on Broad Street and the tours that visit the settings of the Harry Potter films, one is perhaps absorbed by the idea that, at times, everything reminds us of a kind of theme park of knowledge, in which students and teachers are part of the set. Someone might wonder what remains of the machine that, along with Cambridge, of course, was set up to mold the British political and cultural elites..

The provost of Worcester College at the University of Oxford, David Isaac.
The provost of Worcester College at the University of Oxford, David Isaac. MANUEL VÁZQUEZ

“We’re an elite educational institution, but [we’re] not elitist,” affirms David Isaac, a successful lawyer. “‘Elite’ means that we’re the first university in the world in terms of academic excellence. That’s our goal, which is why we choose the best students, regardless of their wealth and origins.”

Isaac, a former head of the U.K.’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, says that he was the first in his family to go to university: first to Cambridge, then to Oxford. He speaks with EL PAÍS while reclining on a sofa in the Hall, on the ground floor of the college, which overlooks a garden, a lake and a sports field, all belonging to the 1.2-million-square-foot Worcester College.

Any university is a complex organism, made up of schools and departments that can be as different as day and night in many respects, even though they coexist side-by-side. But at Oxford, everything is even more complicated. With origins dating back to the 11th century, the university is actually a coalition of 39 independent university organizations (36 colleges and three associations), which are like mini-universities spread throughout the city. Each one has its own personality and significant autonomy, both when it comes to administration and finances. For instance, Worcester College — founded in 1714 on the site of Gloucester Hall and the even older Gloucester College — has a reputation for being one of the most open and diverse institutions. In recent years, 84% of its new undergraduate students have come from public schools. At the other extreme, graduates of public high schools account for less than 60% of new recruits at New College (founded 1379), St Hugh’s (1886), St Peter’s (1929), Corpus Christi (1517) and Christ Church (1546).

For both groups, it’s very difficult to get into Oxford. In 2022, only 13% of applicants achieved it, after a process that only those who have very high grades (which are often influenced by socioeconomic factors) can access. This also includes letters of recommendation, an essay application and an entrance examination, followed by a couple of interviews.

Once inside, students are perfectly aware of the opportunities that are available to them. Yet, in general, they don’t feel as if they’re part of an elite group, or, if they do, they’re careful not to say it out loud. “If you’re good enough to get into a place like [Oxford], you’ll probably end up doing… some people will end up doing something significant,” admits Abdul Hadi Muhammad, a young Londoner of Pakistani origin. He studies engineering at Balliol College, the same college that Boris Johson attended four decades ago.

Students often feel the pressure to live up to expectations. “Many experience imposter syndrome. It’s something that we talk about all the time,” adds Hanah Edwards, a student of PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), a major famous for being a stepping stone on the classic path forged by the British political elites. This journey typically begins in private boarding schools such as Eton and Fettes, continues at Oxford, and ends in Parliament. This is the case, again, of Boris Johnson, but also of David Cameron, Liz Truss, Ed Miliband and Tony Blair.

The dining hall in Balliol College, at the University of Oxford.
The dining hall in Balliol College, at the University of Oxford.MANUEL VÁZQUEZ

The pressure is accompanied by another widespread idea: that being at Oxford automatically implies that you’re privileged. This notion is constantly reinforced by a wonderful setting, both natural and constructed, with its fields, gala halls and centuries-old libraries, and by centuries-old traditions that include black-tie dinners, Latin oaths and special academic robes (cloaks, collars, and caps). Oxford even has a language of its own to name all kinds of things, such as the semesters: Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity. “It may not be the main reason to apply for a place here, at least, not for the majority, but when you arrive, it’s something nice that no other university offers you,” says Staś Kaleta, a Londoner of Polish origin who graduated from Oxford last year with a degree in English Literature.

For some academics, these traditions are the perfect repellent for the most humble students. However, Hadi Muhammad, who chairs The 93% Club at Oxford, a movement that tries to fight inequality by building community among former public high school students, argues just the opposite, while showing EL PAÍS Balliol’s luxurious dining hall: “Before coming here, I had never set foot in a place like this. So being able to sit down to dinner here is a great opportunity and a privilege. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable but, rather, grateful.”

Although it still seems far from being enough, it’s undeniable that social diversity at Oxford is greater today than ever: the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds has doubled since 2016, reaching one in five. And, once inside, scholarships and public loans alleviate the enormous burden of studying there, despite it being a public university. Tuition is about 9,000 pounds (just over $11,500) per year for domestic students, while accommodations, books and meal plans can run between 12,000 and 17,000 pounds (between about $15,000 and $22,000). However, the system is flawed from the beginning — and not only because of the advantages of those who can afford a private school or tutors who, from early childhood, will facilitate entry to the best public institutions.

“The problem isn’t that it’s elitist, but that, for the vast majority, only people who already belong to the elite want [to gain entry to this type of institution] and use it. In other words, [Oxford] reinforces economic and class privileges and inequalities,” writes James Rebanks in an email exchange with EL PAÍS. A writer and shepherd in Matterdale, a town in the northwest of England, Rebanks studied History at Oxford in the 1990s when it was still “dominated by posh [people].” Regarding the lack of representation of the humble classes, he adds: “Historically, the institution hasn’t wanted them. Now, it says yes… but it can’t attract them.”

His own experience might contradict his words, however. There have always been numerous examples of what Kuper describes in his book as one of the “functions of Oxford,” which is the “selection of savvy outsiders” to “initiate them into the lifestyle of the ruling class.”

Regardless, any displays of class privilege such as the ones that Rebanks and Kuper experienced in their days as students are frowned upon today. “It seems that meritocracy has won the narrative,” says César Fuster, a doctoral student who was awarded a scholarship at Oxford to write his thesis, which is precisely about how people understand economic inequality and its sources. Still, he has mixed feelings on the subject. “It’s a university that embraces diversity in a beautiful way, so much so that many criticize it for being too ‘woke.’ However, there’s also all the lingering classism that you can see… for example, every day at lunchtime, the teachers will never share a table with the janitors and cleaners, most of whom are foreigners. These are things that fascinate me and irritate me a lot.”

Thus, class differences manifest themselves in a more subtle way. In accents, for example, whose change comes to represent an identity crisis for some students from humble origins, as revealed in a 2021 study by sociologist Éireann Attridge. Hadi Muhammad admits that his accent has changed since he arrived at Oxford, although he doesn’t feel that this is a negative thing. He also doesn’t believe that there’s anything malicious in the “natural” fact that people tend to hang out with others of the same origin. “In my case, half of my friends have gone to public schools, while the other half have gone to private schools. And we’re together all the time and there’s no problem.”

César Fuster.

The truth is that, regardless of origin, Oxford offers opportunities that other universities don’t. Its recent graduates earn nearly $20,000 more on average than those who graduate from other institutions, as noted in an article published by The Daily Telegraph a few months ago. But the advantages won’t be the same for all graduates, according to Sam Friedman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. He’s the co-author of Born to Rule: The Making and Remaking of the British Elite, which will be published in September.

“There’s an infrastructure of clubs and networks that results in a very different social experience, apart from educational achievements, which remains very important,” Friedman notes. “Oxford may be diversifying its student body to some extent. But as long as such a significant percentage continues to come from private schools, this type of dual experience will continue to exist.”

There are societies of all kinds, be they political (such as the Conservative and Labour clubs), athletic (rugby, rowing, polo...), academic (anthropology, dead languages...), or geared towards nature lovers, future diplomats, or entrepreneurs. But for many, the most famous and most elite student society is the Oxford Union. The debate club, founded in 1823, admits members for a fee equivalent to about $350.

Controversial and shameless, there are those who have asked for its closure (the latest outcry came after a guest delivered a fiercely anti-LGBTQ+ speech). Everyone from Albert Einstein and Michael Jackson, to Mother Teresa and Elizabeth II have passed through this society as guests. And not only have six British prime ministers emerged from its membership (the last one was Boris Johnson): from the end of World War I until the year 2000, around 30% of the presidents of this society have ended up becoming professional politicians.

Hannah Edwards — part of the group of Oxonians who came from private schools — was its president until last March (terms last only three months). She rejects having any aspirations for elected office, but admits that the position tends to attract people who are interested in politics. Perhaps they’re convinced that the student society is a springboard to that world. Of course, it doesn’t hurt… nor does the undoubted power of the overall brand, that of Oxford.

“It doesn’t happen automatically,” insists Isaac, the provost of Worcester College. “It’s a symbol, like with Harvard or Princeton in the United States. But it’s not about who you know and what your networks are: it’s really about what you’ve studied and how you’ve performed,” he opines.

This could be so. But others argue that, surrounding the University of Oxford, there’s a kind of community support among the elite, based on a powerful shared feeling of belonging. The vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, Irene Tracey, admitted something like this in a speech given a few months ago: “With a global community of more than 350,000 alumni and associates, this [means] power, leadership and influence: soft and hard [power].” She also referred to her students as “the next generation of thought leaders.” And, regarding her mission, she stated: “Oxford must feel the pressure of being privileged in terms of resources and talent. So, let us play our part in shaping Britain, Europe and the world in this era of changing globalization.”

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