Oxford's Dishonor

Oxford's Dishonor


Washington Post- Sunday , June 25, 2000


OXFORD UNIVERSITY, that polisher of Rhodes scholars and other youthful gems, sometimes puts its foot in it. In 1985 it

broke with tradition by pointedly refusing to award an honorary degree to Margaret Thatcher, who (despite some vivid faults)

stands out as one of Britain's great prime ministers. Now Oxford's chancellor, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, declares that Prime

Minister Tony Blair won't get an honorary degree because he has criticized the university for class bias.


The complaint against Mrs. Thatcher was that she had inflicted cuts on university budgets. Mrs. Thatcher trimmed

taxpayer-funded cost-of-living grants to students from affluent backgrounds, an extremely modest move given that tuition

remained free to everybody. She also reduced research grants, which was more serious; but prestigious institutions like Oxford

could have plugged the gap through private fundraising. On both counts, Oxford's indignation seems comically overblown. In

tweaking a reformist prime minister, the university revealed its taste for privileged entitlement.


Mr. Blair's offense is to have supported his finance minister in attacking Oxford's admissions process. The Blair government has seized on the case of a student from what Americans would call a public high school who was rejected by Oxford but awarded a scholarship by Harvard. Oxford's partisans protest that some of the other students accepted in her place went to ordinary government schools as well. But, though Mr. Blair and his colleagues may have chosen the wrong example, their larger claim about class bias is hard to argue with.


More than nine in 10 British children go to government schools, yet they account for only half the students at Oxford. Broader

surveys of this question confirm the problem: Children from the less affluent half of society account for only one in seven

students at top universities. Oxford has made some efforts to grapple with this gulf, abolishing written entrance exams, which

were thought to favor candidates from private schools. But the numbers suggest that it has a way to go. Righteous fury at Mr.

Blair's class-blending views only makes Oxford sound complacent.


2000 The Washington Post Company