The meritocracy myth – Oxbridge off limits to local youth

A recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission suggests that difficulties in access to higher education faced by children from poor backgrounds are just as prevalent in wealthier regions of the UK as they are in more deprived areas.

The report found that no children eligible for free school meals in Cambridge and Oxford gained entrance to those universities in 2014 and 2013 respectively. Conversely, the area with the highest rate of child poverty, Tower Hamlets, has far greater social mobility with 39% of children going on to attend university in contrast to only 15% in Cambridge and 14% in Oxford. This finding highlights the inevitable failures of capitalism in providing social mobility as it can be seen that even in the most affluent areas the poorest individuals are marginalised to the same extent as anywhere else.

This is further evidence against the fallacious argument that greater overall levels of wealth always benefit the most underprivileged members of society, when in actuality capital and its benefits are still exclusively concentrated in the hands of the upper classes. Furthermore, gaps in social mobility will not disappear until capitalism is replaced altogether, despite government attempts to mask these inherent disparities through gentrification. It would seem that the invisible hand of the free market really is nowhere to be seen in this case.

So far the liberal solution to the inaccessibility of Oxbridge universities to children outside of the ruling classes has been to impose quotas, so that universities are required to accept certain numbers of students from state schools. However, this is clearly insufficient as these quotas do not discriminate between children from higher and lower income families, the former of whom will inevitably have a greater amount of time and resources to aid them in gaining access to higher education. We can see here that such superficial attempts to tackle inequality do little to address its causes and ultimately only lead to hollow, cosmetic improvements as the poorest members of society are still completely marginalised.

Even after the introduction of quotas elitism is still rife within institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge. In 2015 43.7% of successful applicants to Oxford and 37.8% to Cambridge came from private schools compared to the overall figure of children who attend private schools of 7%, thereby showing a huge disproportionality between the prospects of private and state school students. Statistics also show that pupils at private schools are twice as likely to attend Russell Group universities and over five times more likely to attend Oxbridge than state school pupils. Only 11% of admissions to Brasenose College, Oxford between 2012 and 2014, attended by David Cameron, were from state schools. We can expect these massive disparities to worsen as a result of the slashing of maintenance grants as part of the government’s austerity programme which will render attending university unfeasible for individuals from low income families.

These figures are a vindication of the sheer incompatibility between capitalism and meritocracy. So long as inheritance and private ownership exist there can be no real social mobility and the potential of millions of working class children will never be actualised. It is clear that fair access to higher education can only be accomplished through socialism and the expropriation of the wealth and business assets of the super-rich, to be placed under the democratic control of the working class. Equal opportunity can only exist when individuals are born into equal circumstances, something which can only be achieved through the complete overthrow of the bourgeois state as opposed to gradual reform or positive discrimination.

by Alex Moore, Cambridge Marxist Society