By Cecilia Wang
‘For a real Oxbridge education, you now have to go to Durham.’ James Delingpole’s headline in The Spectator is perhaps the ultimate consolation an Oxbridge reject could seek, especially one written by an Oxford graduate. For many of us here in Durham, Oxbridge used to symbolise the Holy Grail of our education and an assured ‘path to future greatness.’ So it would come as no surprise that it is nothing short of heart-warming when we first devour the comment that Oxbridge rejects at Durham could be ‘of such a calibre that they would once have been a shoo-in.’
However, my joy at first discovering this quickly evaporated in the face of realities. The charms and delights of Delingpole’s eloquent column belie a lack of solid evidence. He evoked everything; from his surprising victory at the Durham Union against his bitter disappointment at our Oxford counterpart, to a dinner conversation with ‘the wife of a Cambridge-educated billionaire’ who was repelled by Oxbridge’s supposed positive discrimination against privately-educated pupils. These stories, though brilliantly recounted by Delingpole, are at best, quoting his own words, ‘anecdotal.’
On the face of it, Delingpole seemed to lament the perishing of the ‘amazing, liberating playground of ideas’ that used to be Oxbridge. He makes what he believes to be Oxbridge’s ‘anti-public-school prejudice’ a central tenet of this argument, identifying it as the root of a ‘sterile PC monoculture.’ In other words, Delingpole is essentially purporting that state-educated pupils at Oxbridge are somehow the source of a political correctness on campus that is stifling candid intellectual debate; to which their privately-educated counterparts are falling victim. This chauvinism, attempting to present a point of view that is blatantly black and white, is highly unfounded.
State-educated pupils at Oxbridge, or indeed, anywhere, are not synonymous with the ‘snowflakes’ that Delingpole sees as terrorising the campus with political correctness. Delingpole, as confessed by himself, is usually ‘on the “wrong” side of the debate.’ In his view, he experienced injustice when the audience at the Oxford Union ignored the intellectual rigour of his arguments and instead supported his rival’s side because their argument was more in line with the students’ own opinions.
This cliché, which Delingpole is advocating, that one’s political opinions are solely determined by their class or socio-economic background is proven incorrect, time and again, in recent political elections. Similarly, not everyone who disagrees with a ‘controversial person’ is a ‘PC maniac.’ It is possible for someone to entertain a disagreement without attempting to shut the other side down; the two are fundamentally different concepts.
Whilst it might have been the case that some students voted for the side they agreed with more, people could choose to vote in a debate for a variety of reasons; such as the qualities of the speakers, their own political inclinations or even comic effects. What James Delingpole experienced at the Oxford Union, is no different to what he experienced at the Durham Union; he was given a platform, equal to that given to his fellow speakers, to voice his opinions free of censorship.
Delingpole fails to explain how Durham differs fundamentally to Oxbridge in its social mix. Admittedly, it is true that Oxbridge have actively attempted to broaden their social diversity recently. According to the BBC, Oxford University increased the proportion of places offered to state-educated pupils from 55.4% in 2010 to 59.2% in 2016, a record high for the past four decades. But we must ask what really matters; does the shifting balance between private and state-educated pupils truly differentiate Durham from Oxbridge? The answer is no.
According to the latest statistics published by the BBC this year, Cambridge has the highest intake of state-educated pupils, standing at 61.9% of its total intake, Durham comes second with 60.5% and Oxford actually has the lowest intake amongst all three universities at 55.7%. Therefore, if Oxbridge are guilty of ‘anti-public-school prejudice’ in Delingpole’s eyes, so is Durham. And if inclusivity towards state school pupils is a key criterion for a university to thrive, then unfortunately, Durham is no better than its southern counterparts.
Essentially, whilst the timeless ethos advocated by James Delingpole (such as intellectual curiosity and analytical rigour) should of course be upheld at universities, he is simply wrong in his view that pupils can only get the ‘echt Oxbridge experience’ in institutions like ours.
Photograph: Ieuan Jenkins via Flickr