Once again Oxford and Cambridge universities are being raked over the coals for not being inclusive enough, this time by race-baiting MP David Lammy.
One of the things which annoys me about these articles, and the fake outrage that underpins them, is the casual assumption that the pinnacle of everyone’s dreams is to go to Oxford or Cambridge. The idea that some extremely bright and talented people might not want to go to either isn’t entertained. As someone commented at Mr Worstall’s:
That’s the thing though isn’t it – people wanting to get in to a different university by choice. Where friends are going, where they liked on a visit, where a particular course is being run, where particular lecturers are based, where particular employers are based. Or simply not far from part of the family.
Back in December I wrote a post about my alma mater, Manchester, and mentioned a fellow engineering student:
She went by the name of Wendy and came from somewhere near Nottingham, and she was probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met anywhere, one of those extraordinarily gifted people who just turn up out of nowhere. I think she completed her four year course with an average mark across all subjects of around 90%, and won every damned prize going in the engineering school such that even after her second year her name graced most of the plaques in the foyer. I remember her sitting a 2-hour engineering maths exam and walking out at the earliest opportunity, which was 30 minutes. She told me she’d finished after 20 minutes and that included checking. She got 100%. She was also a Grade 8 at piano and clarinet.
She was one of those freaks who could have waltzed into Oxford or Cambridge. Indeed, she even went to the open day at Cambridge so it’s not like she wasn’t aware of her options. But she came away not liking what she saw. She grew up in a rough town, raised by her mother (a nurse) after her father disowned her at birth. Posh she wasn’t, and she found the atmosphere at Cambridge not much to her liking. She was particularly unimpressed when someone started rabbiting on about house activities and how they could be restricted for poor behaviour (or something), and decided she’d rather study somewhere she could fit in better. That’s not to say she was critical of Cambridge, she just realised she’d be a lot happier in Manchester (where she slotted straight in). I don’t know how typical her case was, but she represented someone from a poor background who could have gone to Cambridge but simply chose not to. The idea that everyone should aspire to go to Oxford or Cambridge, and those who don’t make it are somehow missing out, is absolute bollocks.
I should add, there is no chip on my shoulder about Oxford or Cambridge either. Consider this nested comment, again from Mr Worstall’s:
“Oxbridge is hard. Really fucking hard. After a soft half-term to allow students with various A-levels to catch up, the pace of acceleration is breathtaking, and they never ever pause to allow students to catch up. You have to do it all on your own.”
A soft half-term? Are you joking? In weeks 1 and 2 we did the whole of A-level further maths! Something like 4 or 8 lectures and 2 tutorials to catch up 2 years for those who’d not done it! It was a rude awakening, I can tell you. Your feet didn’t touch the ground for 9 weeks upon arrival (the 8 week terms thing is a bit of a myth – there’s 0th and 9th weeks too, and if you’re unlucky, 10th week.).
I’d have lasted for about an hour in an environment like that. I found the maths at Manchester hard, and scraped my degree with a 2:1 thanks to a very strong industrial placement in my final year (being practical and goal-driven counts for a lot in a small company).
So yeah, Oxford and Cambridge are definitely for the brightest among us, but that doesn’t mean the brightest automatically aspire to either.