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Home > Media

Journojism: Oxford - Just Do It

31 July 2006

Along with the fact that cancer victims always struggle 'bravely' against their illness, one of the immutable laws of journalism is surely that anything to do with Oxford University is newsworthy.

We can only speculate as to why, but it may be because so many broadsheet editors went to Oxford, or have children there. Meanwhile, forelock-tugging, class-addled rags like the Mail and Express know that their readers fervently wish that they or their children had gone to Oxford - primarily to meet a better class of person. Even the red-tops like Oxford, because it's a flimsy excuse to reprint a picture of a Page 3 girl in a mortar board.

Whatever the reason, there's a tendency for any story about Oxford, however minor, to find its way into print. Take this week's news that Oxford plans to take into account the academic record of a candidate's school when offering them a place. The plans are so slight that they're barely worth mentioning - basically if a pupil went to a shit state school or sixth-form college, they *might* be given a lower conditional offer than the usual three As at A-level.

Not exactly the sort of thing that would have most of us spitting feathers, but a Mail journalist did manage to elicit some ridiculously strong words from Dr Martin Stephen, 'high master' (headmaster?) of St Paul's School, who called the plans 'dangerous'. Dr Stephen said:

'Nobody can deny the validity of the aim, which is that the brightest should go to the best universities. As usual, the means is at the very least primitive, at worst it is immoral. The absolute tragedy would be if Oxford turned down candidates who had done well. That makes a travesty of social and moral justice.'

A brief reality check is needed here by the good Doctor, for a variety of reasons. Not least is the fact that he talks about it being 'dangerous', 'immoral' and 'a travesty of social and moral justice'. Whatever the rights and wrongs of positive discrimination in higher education, we're talking about university places here, not the Cultural Revolution.

Another point is that in boring old reality, Oxford University (among others) already takes into account what school applicants went to. It's less to do with positive discrimination and more the fact that some schools and colleges are geared to coaching their students toward tippy-top A-level results than others. Although this does state schools a bit of a disservice - most are perfectly capable of acting as exam factories and ensuring that pupils tick all the right boxes when it comes to exams, regardless of whether they've got any breadth of understanding of their subject, or indeed any intellectual enthusiasm whatsoever.

And finally, Oxford (again, like other universities) places a lot of store on the interview. Of course, you can argue that this introduces a whole load of other issues - some people are perfectly academically capable but rubbish at interviews, wherever they went to school, and so on, but it means that a genuine attempt is made to work out an applicant's potential. No one's talking about automatically letting applicants into Oxford because they went to a school at the bottom of the league tables.

So, another controversy that probably wouldn't have seen the light of day had it not had the words 'Oxford University' attached. Precisely *why* Oxford should automatically be newsworthy remains unclear (try replacing the word 'Oxford' with 'Newcastle' throughout the above article, and you'll see what we mean). Maybe by now it's just become such a habit that even journalists don't know or care why they're doing it:

'Apparently the bursar of St Madeup College has been having an affair. There's our page three lead!'

'Er, why?'

'Dunno. Just do it anyway, eh?'

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

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