Connect to share and comment

How David Cameron doesn't represent change

The new prime minister's election reinforces Oxford University's dominance in British politics.

Partially, it's the physical impact of the place. To spend three years of your life wandering up painfully pretty back streets like Queen's Lane is to be invited to inhabit the guts of history. The first Oxford colleges were founded in the 11th and 12th centuries. And daily life reflects that unique heritage. Everything seems to happen with costumes on: You sit for exams wearing special gowns and the academic calendar is marked with traditional ceremony after traditional ceremony where fancy dress is required.

The education is about you, you, you. It is centered around a weekly one-on-one meeting with a tutor during which the student discusses an essay he or she has written. There are no classes and no semester grades as such, just exams taken at the end of the first and third years in the student's major. They have to hope those one-on-one tutorials prepare them for that ordeal.
When not working on essays, undergraduates are free to attend lectures and learn as they please, to join clubs, to think great thoughts — or learn to politic. After three years of this a person might begin to feel that he or she is special, with a certain entitlement to a leading role in British society.

Another critical reason for the dominance of Oxford is that until very recently admissions were dominated by students from a handful of what the British call "public schools" — what the rest of the world calls private schools. They include places like Eton, where David Cameron and Boris Johnson were educated, and Westminster, where George Osborne and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg went to school. A 2008 study by the Sutton Trust showed that 3 percent of Britain's secondary schools provided a third of the pupils accepted to Oxford and its elite counterpart Cambridge (Clegg's alma mater). The public school graduates arrive at Oxford with an already well-developed sense of superiority that colors much of social life among undergrads.

It was big news about a decade ago when for the first time more state school students than public school students made up the Oxford student body. That trend is slowly continuing. Fifty-seven percent of the incoming 2010 class will have graduated from state schools, according to Mike Nicholson, Oxford University's director of undergraduate admissions.

Nicholson said the undergraduate recruitment process is at the heart of Oxford's success. It works very differently than in the U.S. Fewer people apply for Oxford's roughly 3,200 spots than to Harvard or Stanford. One in five applicants is accepted. This is in part because British students who apply to Oxford cannot also apply to Cambridge.

The admissions criterion starts with proven academic performance at school and on standardized tests. However, the extracurricular activities beloved of American high school guidance counselors are not important for admission to the two elite British universities, known collectively as Oxbridge. What counts most, according to Nicholson, is "potential academic ability. Will a student flourish in the tutorial system?" In other words, you can be coached to do well on Kaplan tests but there is no way to be coached into talking the talk of the Oxford tutorial. This "talk" is hard to explain but you can get a sense of it listening to cultural programs on BBC radio.

This leads to the downside of Oxford recruitment. Many intellectually gifted high school students feel they can't talk that rarefied talk — a confident style of speaking that evolved over the centuries when Oxford was even more thoroughly dominated by privately educated, upper-class types — and so do not bother to apply to Oxford.