in Misc.

Letter to The Guardian (unpublished)

I sent this letter to the Guardian last week, but alas not chosen for publication.  I was trying to advance the idea that prejudice does not flow simply in one direction.  I haven ‘t looked at it for two weeks, and I don’t think I’d make the last sentence so categorical if I was to submit it again.  Comments welcome as always. 


Dear Sir,

Re: : ‘Oxbridge’s class divide raises food for thought’

Given the high prevalence of an Oxbridge education amongst prominent people in our society, few would argue that striving for a situation where access to these institutions is available to students from a broad variety of backgrounds is not desirable.  Your article ‘Oxbridge’s class divide raises food for thought’ examines the difficulties faced by students from lower income families who seek to study in these universities.

Although the start of a university experience is anxiety producing for most, starting out at an Oxbridge college may be more difficult for some than for others.  For example many students from fee paying schools are awarded places alongside a large proportion of their existing social circle, whereas on day one a new student from an average comprehensive might well know no one.

Yet ‘fitting in’ is a skill that is worth mastering at an early opportunity.  It’s a shame then that rather than focus on positive Oxbridge experiences of those from deprived background your article choose to feature students who were as prejudicial towards more privileged students as they expect those students are towards them.  Although their parents do probably listen to Radio 4 (and read the Guardian), I find it difficult to believe that the ‘white posh boys’ described by one student in the article, were really ‘disgusted’ when the television was tuned to MTV.

In reality whilst there will always be people who refuse to see beyond the narrow confines of class the majority of Oxbridge students are friendly and welcoming.  For all but the deliberately anti-social, marginalisation based on background is available only for those that seek it.  

Yours etc.

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  1. “there will always be people who refuse to see beyond the narrow confines of class” – perhaps the issue of class can finally be put to bed when those who get into our best universities are more representative of the wider culture (not that I’m holding my breath expecting this to happen in my lifetime).

    Despite specific (and expensive) strategies to attract more kids from state schools the % from fee paying schools is rising at Oxford (to cite just one example) accounting for almost 50% of those awarded places (even though >90% of children attend state run schools).

    There is also a nice piece in today’s Observer about the effects of class on our education system
    While in the same issue it is claimed arts degrees have “become the preserve of the wealthy” after a study demonstrated how the “wealthiest students dominate humanities” while academics “fear tuition fee rises will deepen problem”

    I’m not surprised the posh Oxbridge undergraduates are friendly, they’ve got a great deal to be happy about, while thinking specifically about medicine it has LONG been known that “the excess of medical students from social class I cannot be satisfactorily explained in terms of either social class, or differences in intellectual ability”

    I agree with you to the extent that the lucky few from poorer backgrounds who find a place at Oxbridge should do their utmost to exploit their good fortune, but this hardly alters the dreadful inequality that permeates education given that such a high % of opportunity is still being bought?

  2. I agree with you that prejudice does not flow simply in one direction. But am I understanding you correctly? Do you really think that only the deliberately anti-social, or those who seek it, experience marginalisation based on background? In what ways, then, do you think the Oxbridge students sought the prejudical attitudes they received from some of the students of a deprived background? Or do you mean that it’s only those from a working-class background who seek it?

    I’m pleased to hear that ‘the majority’ of Oxbridge students are friendly and welcoming. I can’t dispute this as I don’t personally know the majority of Oxbridge students. But I hope you’re right that everything in the garden is now rosy, at least for all except a tiny minority who have only themselves to blame.

    Class differences certainly used to bring often insurmountable problems, prejudice and inequalities in many areas of life. How lovely if this is no longer the case, with the majority of Oxbridge students setting a shining example!

  3. I went to Cambridge from a state school in the 70s, didn’t know anyone at the start, my son went to Oxford from a state school more recently, both of us enjoyed it and neither of us was aware of any social problems to do with not being rich (or even white) – maybe we moved in the wrong circles. There are so many different people with such varied backgrounds at any university that it would be hard not to find friends. And sometimes you might feel that people are looking down on you when they are not, if you are sensitive about fitting in.

    It is very worrying how high the proportions of public school students are at most high status universities (not just Oxbridge), but that seems more likely to stem from low expectations in some state schools, attitudes at home (I imagine families who pay thousands for private education are very much in favour of their children working hard), changes to the exam system limiting pupils’ basic knowledge of maths and the grammar of foreign languages – than from prejudice at entry.

    I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone among my own of my children’s friends who said they hated university because it was full of snobs, though no doubt you can find snobs if you want to.

  4. I know my previous comment sounds like I was OK so everyone should be OK, irritating and unconclusive – but I thought of something else, I think the numbers applying to Oxford and Cambridge are low from state schools, maybe documentaries about people who felt unhappy there don’t help, a few non-rich people who enjoyed it might be worth including too, they wouldn’t be hard to find.

  5. Hi – Great blog fp! Just a general comment – working in mental health and championing a lifelong learning resource that may be of interest…?

    The health career – care domains – model is a conceptual framework, its prime application being in health and social care. The model’s potential scope extends far beyond health and social care disciplines. This arises from the model’s structure which is constructed from two axes:

    individual – group
    humanistic – mechanistic

    These give rise to four care or knowledge domains:

    1. Sciences
    2. Interpersonal
    3. Sociology
    4. Political

    There is a website and blog –

    Blog – “Welcome to the QUAD”

    The blog includes a bibliography and archive. Each of the care domains includes a knowledge resource, with the interpersonal covering mental health, therapies, psychology ….

    A new website using Drupal is planned.

    Kind regards,

    Peter Jones
    Community Mental Health Nurse NHS plus Independent Scholar & Informatics Specialist
    h2cm: help 2C more – help 2 listen – help 2 care

  6. This is such a thought provoking and emotive topic and one close to my heart. The class divide is exemplified beautifully in the excerpt from ‘estates’. How can someone who has lived the first 16 years of their lives on an estate, with all the environmental stimuli therein; not take some of that along with them to university?

    Small but significant life lessons are passed on from parents and environment in the formative years of one’s life. A proletariat student mixing with the bourgeoisie will undoubtedly, at times, be ousted as ignorant or uncouth not because of inferior intellect or a lesser desire to be cultured but merely because they have been less fortunate with their early experiences. Both the working class student and the middle class student will be aware of this and neither will feel all together comfortable.

    Almost all attitudes apart from what Carl Roger’s termed being fully congruent will add to the problem. Unfortunately students at universities around the country and Oxbridge in particular are unlikely to be proficient client-centred-therapists and therefore it is more likely that they have developed schemas which impart an evolutionary advantage in that they assist in the avoidance of danger. Stereotypes are commonly held schemas.

    One only has to watch satire on TV to observe commonly held stereotypes e.g. scousers all being thieves or people from council estates being thugs with no appreciation of the arts or culture. How then can this not permeate the subconscious of society and leave the [prole] individual feeling like they don’t belong? Not because they are treated badly but because they are aware of their shortcomings in the social etiquette all around them.

    I am sure that Oxbridge warmly welcomes the deserving disadvantaged as an institution; however the deserving disadvantaged can be left feeling aloof and disenfranchised from the supercilious attitudes that undoubtedly permeate the echelons of an institution that prides itself on producing political and academic figureheads.

    John (final year medical student from a council estate in Liverpool)