Charlie Stone is an author and journalist who has worked for the BBC, several national newspapers in the UK and international media.
Taking more state school pupils might make Cambridge and Oxford more representative of society, but it still won’t address the biased perception that the south is superior in a UK that remains obsessed by class.
It’s grim up north. Or at least, that’s what some people in the south of England think. Anywhere north of the Home Counties – they’re the grassy shires that encircle London – is the land of the unwashed hordes.
I’m a northerner, though. And lots of people from the north think the folk down south are a bit soft and whingey. They like a dash of lemonade in their pints – they call it ‘a lager top’, and any man ordering one in a northern bar will be scowled at or sniggered at (try it, I dare ya). It kind of matches the dash of superiority, some in the north believe, that those southerners assume but really don’t deserve.
Then there’s the posh folk who speak a bit like the Queen. They can seem aloof and snobbish – mostly because, well, they usually ARE aloof and snobbish. They’re like a completely different sub-species excreted from Eton and Harrow and Westminster and a handful of other ancient and expensive schools. And that accent, man… they may as well be Chinese or Turkish or Indonesian for all they have in common with their northern cousins.
It was assumed that the bloodlines in the north had a hint of Scandinavia to them due to the Viking invasions over 1,000 years ago. Plus influences from the Celts of Scotland and Ireland.
Whereas in the south, they’re a bit more French and German, on account of William the Bastard – alternatively known as William the Conqueror – landing on the south coast from his base in northern France in 1066. And the Anglo-Saxons from even earlier, who headed to the British Isles after the collapse of the Roman Empire.
There has even been research which backs up a genetic divide, but the lines – of course – are not so simple. Anyone who has travelled around England though, especially the north, will probably have noticed the very distinct different accents, which can change over a very short geographical distance.
It kind of doesn’t matter what research says, though, because these dividing lines of class and region are still assumed by many – even today, in 2021, the digital age. It is, as someone who has drifted through the middle of it, a bit irritating and absurd and unhealthy – from all sides.
Take, for example, some unhelpful comments this weekend from Dorothy Byrne, who used to be the boss of news and current affairs on the Channel Four TV network in the UK but is now the new president of Murray Edwards (formerly New Hall), a women-only college at Cambridge University.
“Private school pupils need to get over their obsession with getting into Oxford and Cambridge,” she told the Sunday Times. “Students from Eton would be very lucky to get into Manchester and Sheffield universities. It might be good for them. They could travel to the north, which might be a bit of a shock for some of them, and meet more diverse people. I would posit Boris Johnson and David Cameron would have benefited from going to Sheffield University [rather than Oxford].”
Byrne, of course, went to Sheffield (and Manchester). Figures show that 72 percent of students about to start at Cambridge come from state schools – the highest proportion since the first pupils showed up 812 years ago. Byrne, though, reckons it should be 93 percent.
“I understand that will mean that fewer students from top public schools like Eton, Harrow and Westminster will go to Cambridge,” she added. “But luckily there are more than 100 fantastic other universities private school pupils can go to, and when they go to those places they will have the added advantage of meeting people who are not like them.”
There was always an assumption – it has to be said, backed up by the data in the past – that kids from the posh private schools down south would simply hoover up all the places at Oxford and Cambridge. Both establishments are in the south of England, within the broader definition of those Home Counties.
It’s not always the case, though. A woman I worked with years ago – at, of course, the BBC, which has always been a preferred destination of kids from posh schools – went to one of the UK’s top female-only schools and failed to get a place in Oxford or Cambridge. And she was, at the time, crestfallen. She went instead to Durham, arguably the country’s third ‘most important’ university (though how the hell one ranks these things, God only knows – this obsession with pecking orders, I’d suggest, is part of the problem).
Durham University is most certainly in the north; the city of Sunderland is just down the River Wear. Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, just up the road from Durham, also have very good reputations – if you’re reading this on an iPhone or iPad or MacBook, the man who designed them, Sir Jonny Ive, went to Northumbria.
Liverpool and Manchester and Lancaster, in the northwest, also have fine reputations. But none of these has the same ring to them as Oxford and Cambridge, just like Harvard and Yale in the US. They just don’t. And there’s the rub. ‘Oxbridge’ colleges, as they’re known, are simply the best brands to have on your CV.
It’s a shame. Often the first experience of all this class-conscious bollocks, where it is most obviously and crudely felt, is when kids leave school and depart for universities in far flung cities – be that southerners heading north, or northerners headed south. They rub up close to these foreigners from the other side of the divide and find… they’re pretty much the same as they are.
So, here’s an admittedly radical thought. Why not just break up Oxford and Cambridge Universities into their different colleges and get rid of the pecking order altogether? If we really want Britain to move on from the regional, class-obsessed division that seems more apparent than ever, perhaps rethinking the role of these two southern educational institutions should be on the agenda.