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Home > Culture and Society

Universityjism : not going to Oxford will ruin your life

19 November 2004

You sometimes have to wonder at the toll popular preconceptions must have taken on our ability to imagine reality. Are there thousands of coppers feeling hard done-by because it's not all kicking doors in? Maybe there are thousands of teachers bitterly reflecting on the fact that they've never once saved a child from the ghetto by igniting their love of learning. Or dance.

One thing does appear clear: there are thousands of people who imagine that Oxford University combines the settings of Brideshead Revisited, the academic whizzyness of A Beautiful Mind and the social life of a comedic romp starring Hugh Grant and penned by Richard Curtis. (Oh God. That's it, that's his next film, isn't it? 'Oxford! Starring Hugh Grant, from the makers of Bridget Jones' Diary')

This would at least explain the lengths some people will go to to get into Oxbridge. This week, writing in the Sunday Times, Anna May Mangan explains that her daughter, 'Annie' (her name was changed throughout the article for less-than-obvious reasons) failed to get a place at an Oxford college despite 13 A or A* GCSEs and predicted straight As in her A-levels. 'Annie' described her other uni offers - LSE, Imperial College, Bristol, York and Warwick - as like 'being invited to a party you don't want to go to' and decided to reapply to Oxford the following year.

However, after chatting to fellow parents, Mangan was shocked to find them saying things like 'Why did you choose that college?' and 'Did Annie have a tutor and interview practice beforehand?' An increasingly paranoid Mangan writes: 'Was there an inside track we knew nothing about?' and, more worryingly: 'From then on in it became a family quest: why hadn't Annie got in and could we improve her chances?'

With this one sentence you immediately begin to form an image of a strung-out, neurotic middle-class mummy banging on about the sheer injustice of the Oxford admissions system as though her daughter had been subjected to the same treatment as the Birmingham Six.

But what is this 'inside track' to getting into Oxford? Er, it's doing some preparation. It's the sort of preparation that posho schools with high rates of Oxbridge entry do as a matter of course. It's making sure that applicants approach the sort of college that is most likely to take them, practising Oxford-style written tests and finding out about the sort of questions asked
in interview (Oxford tutors like a nice lively debate, not simpering agreement).

Unsurprisingly, Mangan also discovered companies able to provide his pre-interview research and training. The Mangans booked up for a package costing 540 from the company Oxbridge Applications (which also offers a 'premier service' for 4,000.)

So 'Annie' gets a second shot at Oxford rejection, her mummy's dinner party guests get to talk about something else for a bit, and would-be Oxbridge grads learn of another way to fractionally reduce the odds against them (if their parents have got the cash).

But what this tiny tale of aspiration really suggests is that we've got a fixation with getting the 'best' education that really has little to do with its consequences on that other fairly important period of our lives: the 55+ years after we graduate and before we die.

Take 'Annie'. She's taken an involuntary year out, and there's no guarantee she'll get in next time round: Oxford has to reject thousands of applicants, most of whom have extremely high qualifications. And if 'Annie' does get into Oxford, will it live up to her expectations?

The teaching standards at Oxford are unquestionably high, with individual tutorials and a fairly heavy workload, but is it really going to have that much impact on her life? An Oxford degree does open doors in the sense that employers prick up their ears when they see it on a CV, but there's a lot more to getting a job than that.

And an Oxford degree doesn't automatically lead to some fast- track career path where employers descend on you asking you to train as documentary makers or work on the Today Programme or become an advertising copywriter (we think we're safe in assuming that the majority of 18-year-olds foresee three career paths: the media, the media, and the media.)

Even an excellent degree has its limitations. They're good if you want to continue in academia, they're good for the milkround, and they certainly count in your favour when an employer's skim- reading your CV.

But concerned mummies like Anna May Mangan might find her and her daughter's time better spent by getting 'Annie' off to one of those rubbish unis like the LSE, and later having a chat with her daughter about what she intends to do after university. A bit of thought about this, and even some work experience, is a more useful investment in the future than a year sitting at home waiting to reapply to Oxford at a slight disadvantage (ie. you look a bit desperate).

And it would prevent the most horrific outcome: Anna May Mangan's daughter returning home from Oxford with a 2:1, and still being there two years later moaning that she's overqualified for everything because Planet 24 Television never replied to her application to become a researcher, and her 60th spec letter to the BBC still hasn't borne fruit.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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