In January this year, a young lady caused a bit of a stir online when she wrote a sarcastic letter to Oxford rejecting the university in the same manner that they usually reject unsuccessful applicants. This was followed by her attempting to justify her decision in a Comment is Free article, which sparked even more debate, a lot of which was regarding architectural preference.
While I wouldn’t necessary agree with her methods, I get her point, and I do think it gives the rest of us an opportunity to reflect on one of the biggest problems with our current education system.
From the outset, I would like to make it clear that I hold both Oxford and Cambridge in high regard. Please do not mistake my comments as hostility towards any institution in particular.
Clearly, having an ‘Oxbridge’ education gives its recipients/participants a fantastic start to their future career. I would be difficulty to argue otherwise, given the long and distinguished culture of excellence and tendency to produce some of the world’s foremost individuals and departments in their respective fields. However, it would be naïve to ignore other factors that mark out graduates from institutions such as these.
The prestige value that attending certain institutions (e.g., Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, and the like) has, and its possibly significant influence on future employment prospects should not be understated. One can certainly argue that the prestige is very much deserved, and students should be proud to attend an institution that is so distinguished.
However, and this is an important point, one could also argue that it is precisely this prestige that has now taken over from true academic excellence as the dominant currency in the education exchange as the reason to attend such an institution.
Consider, if you will, the case of Eton College, which many consider to be analogous to Oxbridge in the secondary education sector. It is undoubtedly successful academically (although not chart-topping), and many of its former pupils go on to take up highly respected positions, especially as leaders of what may be called the corporate and plutocratic elite.
But is that purely down to its academic excellence? Clearly not. What Eton provides is a fantastic education coupled with a prestige factor quite unlike any other, coupled with an old boys network that is as close knit as they come.
Ultimately, what serves as a major driving factor for many people (not all obviously) to schools and universities such as these, is the chance to be considered part of a formidable and immensely powerful and influential network, to make contacts with people who can open doors for them that many others may not have had the ability to do so. History is littered with highly prominent individuals who were mediocre at best academically, but really excelled where it mattered most and managed to come away from their tenure with a great future ahead of them.
The bottom-line, then, is not just academic excellence. Would the same student receive a better education at Oxford than they did at UCL? That would be difficult to prove. But while certain departments at UCL may carry a lot of weight in specialist fields, the “Oxbridge graduate” label crosses a lot more boundaries than the generic “UCL graduate” tag. Academically successful or not, an Oxbridge graduate is always regarded as an elite and, arguably, their path through life will potentially be immeasurably easier than their non-elite peers.
Is this illegal? No. Is it unethical or immoral? Pass. But many people do not like the culture of closed networks and the intrinsic advantage that it affords to people within it, and by extension, the possible intrinsic disadvantage it puts those outside it. And this, more than any reason of architectural preference, is what I believe really irked our young protagonist.
It is certainly a valid point that networks exist in every institution. But where she has been really successful, in my opinion at least, is by aiming her bow at the head of the metaphorical beast. It is the education system’s equivalent to targeting a major commercial platform as a means of critiquing commercialism as a whole.
The episode has drawn a lot of publicity, and sparked healthy debate about the state of education in general. Not a bad result from just one letter.