The education at Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities in the UK is by in large both inspiring and of the highest quality. It’s personal, rigorous and honest. The pursuit of excellence through rigorous thought is something Oxbridge can directly cultivate for those lucky enough to enrol (matriculate) or indirectly encourage for those brave enough to apply or inquisitive enough to engage independently.
Are we, as parents, comfortable enough with selective higher- education so that we can prepare our children for the challenges and opportunities it can bring? Or are our misplaced unconscious biases against ‘the elite’ holding them back.
Universities offer hundreds of courses and depending on your choice of course, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE or the other UK based world renowned institutions may not be the best choice – there’s a balance to strike, but more on that on another occasion.
By starting early and with careful commitment, we can help our children get the best grades they possibly can, this as a stand-alone goal, seems positive. Of course grades are not the be all and end all, an ability to think critically and a level of comfort discussing conceptually difficult concepts is also essential. The notion that these softer (but arguably more important) prerequisites can only be developed at Public and private schools is again false, however limited resources can make this more difficult within the state sector. Chess, debating, music, sport, literary clubs and just about anything else can help enrich a child’s education and does not have to cost the world. Moreover local councils and organisations who offer these services are crying out for increased participation.
The pursuit of academic excellence and an analytical, free thinking mind seem to me as a positive, regardless of whether it ends at a top university. Moreover, the journey itself becomes enjoyable as a diverse, full and stimulating routine changing your approach to school, homework and everything else you do.
Some feel that a love for sport, drama and music are reasons not to chase the very best higher-education institutions. In my experience the offering at universities like Oxford and Cambridge is more than adequate for the most talented of amateurs (of course noting that you may choose Arsenal FC, Royal College of music, RADA or countless other institutions which serve as fertile ground for our most talented).
All of the extra-curricular exists to provide a welcome and healthy balance to the academia and while they can add stress to an already stressful days, weeks or terms, they add colour to what is already a special experience. Of course you must be academic, both Cambridge and Oxford are now openly saying that the average applicant has 5-8 A*s at GCSE. This may not be attainable for every child, but aiming for these high standards is in itself a positive and the rewards when attained can be life changing.
Then there is the application process and interview. Unconscious bias is inherent to the interview process as it is inherent to every interview and every human interaction. This does not make it acceptable, but thinking of it this way will help to remove some perceived malice. Moreover, Oxbridge is self-aware and has an ability to comfort and discuss issues around gender, colour, class and sexuality. Tackling these consciously for students at the university and increasingly throughout the interview process. No system is perfect.
The state sector educates 93% of all pupils in the UK but last year only 59.2% of Oxford’s offers went to the state sector, a 40 year high. This is promising. Oxbridge and other elite universities must continue to work more strategically to increase diversity, and I believe they are. The prevailing belief is that diversity adds to everyone’s learning experience. This is made evident by efforts to increase transparency around the interview, and investments in meaningful outreach programmes. But there is more to it than that.
Oxbridge is still seen as elitist in the eyes of many and not aspirational. Could the problem be in the state sector, are our teachers doing enough to push our brightest children towards a (gradually) opening door? Or reaffirming the old untruth that Oxbridge is for a select few from the wealthy and well-to-do; others need not apply. As a parent, the challenge is to balance all of the above and push towards the best outcome for your child. Oxbridge may not be the answer, but we owe it to our children to find out on our terms and, if not for your child other parents have the right to make that decision for theirs.
Dr Ambroz Neil