Oxford’s Old Imperialism And Modern Exclusions

Yesterday we had a day out in Oxford. By coincidence this seemed to be the day of college rowing races on the river. We found ourselves in the middle of all this, watching the boats getting ready to set off; the University crowds watching them, the racing itself, and then the cheering when the boats came past and then the crews brought them into the riverbank and then lifted them out of the water.

Now I am writing this at a time when the poor economic situation means that the press headlines are that Chancellor Osborne plans more spending cuts. And so far we know that what that means is even more devastating cuts in key public services and also draconian reductions in levels and access to welfare benefits that particularly affect some of the most disadvantaged groups in society, including disabled people, mental health service users, lone parents and people without jobs.

Now we all know that Oxford University is very prestigious and internationally important. Students come there from all over the world.

What was striking as we walked about in the midst of all this rowing activity was that the dominant accent was ‘posh’. What was also striking was that almost everybody involved was white. I heard more American voices among students than I saw black people. Of course this shouldn’t be a surprise. Over the last year or two the failure of Oxford University to recruit black and minority ethnic students has made major headlines. We also know that while seven percent of the UK population go to private/’public’ schools, more than half the Oxford intake were privately educated. That is exactly how it sounded as we wandered about.

Of course one major change that has taken place in Oxford rowing is that there are now lots of women’s teams as well as men’s. But as for the class origins of those women, we know from the broader evidence it is likely to be very limited and biased to the privileged. Also we can guess that as rowing is a sport that is focused particularly in public schools, the students taking part may well also be particularly overloaded with entrants from public schools.

A few points emerge from this. How long are universities like Oxford going to stay world class so long as they recruit in such a narrow and biased way excluding black and minority ethnic and state school talent? Second, why should we be privileging them as charities with tax and other reliefs so long as this is the case. This looks like another example of a reverse welfare state. My long term University, Brunel University London, recruits a host of highly talented black and minority ethnic students and has none of the privilege and advantage or even status of Oxbridge. This seems pretty misplaced.

Finally the icing on the cake of inequality and injustice for me was to see that this event was very visibly sponsored by financial corporations, whose banners and flags were very much in evidence. That is to say it was subsidized by the very kind of financial institutions that led to this country’s economic meltdown a few years ago and resulted in the so-called austerity that has been used to attack poor and disadvantaged people. Shameful!

A battle is still going on in Oxford where some progressive students and activists are demanding the removal of statues of the appalling Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Oxford’s powers-that-be are resisting this determinedly. Not really surprising since the sense I had in Oxford yesterday was nothing so much as returning to a dreary divided world of Victorian over-privilege. Rhodes sadly is still as relevant of today’s Oxford as the Oxford he gave stolen riches to more than a hundred years ago. Oxford is said to be the home of lost causes. This will certainly be one of them.

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