Class, Not Classes, Keeps a Bright British Student Out of Oxford
Washington Post, June 1, 2000
By T. R. Reid
OXFORD, England –– When Britain's high school seniors received their college acceptance letters this spring, Laura Spence
did better than most. The straight-A student at Monkseaton Community High School was accepted by four respected British
universities, as well as by Harvard. As icing on the cake, Harvard offered her a hefty financial aid package.
And yet Spence has suddenly been cast as a victim in a furious national argument about discrimination in education. The
problem is that she was rejected by Britain's most prestigious center of learning, Oxford University, on grounds that strike many as downright snobbery toward community high schools and their graduates.
Last week, Spence, 18, and her high school principal complained to their local newspaper. Ever since, politicians, pundits and
professors have been engaged in a fiery debate about how British students are picked for those cherished freshman slots at
Oxford and Britain's other ancient seat of higher learning, Cambridge.
"It is well nigh time to move past the old elitism and put . . . opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few," roared Deputy
Prime Minister John Prescott (Oxford '63), a point echoed by numerous others in the ruling Labor Party.
William Hague (Oxford '82), leader of the opposition Conservative Party, fired back: "This cheap and mindless attack on
university admissions departments is a smoke screen to cover the scandal of our state education system."
Even Prime Minister Tony Blair (Oxford '74) took time from paternity leave with his 12-day-old son Leo to jump into the fight,
deploring the fact that "talented youngsters feel they have to go abroad to complete their education."
Britain is hardly the only place where going to a prestigious college can be a career-booster. The U.S. presidential election this
year, after all, will be fought between graduates of Yale and Harvard. But few schools anywhere can match the way Oxford
and Cambridge--often lumped together as "Oxbridge"--dominate the British establishment.
Of Britain's 11 postwar prime ministers, eight have been Oxbridge grads. Of the 23 members of Blair's cabinet, nine went to
Oxbridge. Banks, board rooms, the bar, the bureaucracy and the judiciary are all Oxbridge fiefdoms. Over the past two
decades, the stature of newer regional schools--known here as "red brick universities," in contrast to the carved-stone Gothic
towers of Oxbridge--has grown considerably. But "Oxford and Cambridge continue to fashion the ruling elite," noted BBC
announcer and social critic Jeremy Paxman (Cambridge '72).
Accordingly, the argument about who gets through those privileged gates is always a rich topic of contention. As with most of
the debates that really get the blood running here, the question revolves around an essential element of British life--social class.
In a society that still pays considerable deference to inherited wealth, titles and status, the old school ties of upper-crust British
boarding schools such as Eton and Harrow evidently still play a role in Oxbridge admissions. Only 7 percent of British high
school students attend selective private schools, but about 50 percent of the students at Oxford and Cambridge come from
those exclusive institutions.
Spence's defenders argue that her problem with Oxford was that her school in Whitley Bay, outside Newcastle, is a
"comprehensive." That's the British term for a neighborhood public high school that you can go to without taking an entrance
exam. Spence's grades and standardized test scores were top-notch; her downfall came when she traveled here for an
admissions interview with an Oxford don, or professor.
In notes made public last week, the don described her as "outstandingly intelligent" but judged that she would not fit in at
Oxford because "as with other comprehensive school pupils, [she is] low in confidence and [it is] difficult to draw her out of
Another problem for Spence was the highly specialized nature of British universities, which require that students choose a
specific field of study a year before entering. Spence focused on medicine and applied to the pre-med program at Oxford's
Magdalen College, but Magdalen takes only five pre-med students each year. The college says that it has greatly expanded its
intake of community high school graduates over the past decade; this year, two of the five pre-med slots went to such
Pronouncing herself astonished at the political turmoil her case has stirred up, Spence said she will not talk to the media any
more and said she will matriculate at Harvard in September.
Her problem now is paying for it. Even with a $25,000 annual aid package, Spence told her local paper, she needs to raise
another $10,000 a year to cover her costs. In contrast, the total cost of tuition, housing, and fees at Oxford, or any of Britain's
heavily subsidized universities, would be about $7,000.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company