In praise of Oxford
The University has responded, pointing out that the figure quoted refers to British undergraduates of black Caribbean origin starting courses in 2009/10. In fact, Oxford admitted 41 UK undergraduates with black backgrounds during that year, and a very respectable 22 per cent of Oxford’s total student population came from ethnic minority backgrounds. When this is placed alongside the 2001 census figures, which established that 7.9 per cent of the population are of non-white ethnicity, there would appear to be a considerable over-representation BME candidates.
But that is all froth and bubble.
If the measure of a university can be gauged by the number of prime ministers it produces, Oxford stands pre-eminent. David Cameron was its 26th, as against the mere 14 produced by Cambridge. In fact, Oxford could be said to have produced 27 prime ministers if one includes William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath (Christ Church, 1700), conventionally discounted because he held office for just two days. And it is not only British prime ministers, but some 30-or-so other world leaders graduated from Oxford, so it must be doing something right.
Here is not the place to conjecture on the reasons: the point is that of 54 serving prime ministers, beginning with Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), 41 went to Oxbridge, 10 attended no university at all and three went to other universities (Earl Russell and Gordon Brown to Edinburgh; Neville Chamberlain to Birmingham). His Grace is, of course, a Cambridge man, and he finds it interesting that Oxonian prime ministers outnumber Cantabrian ones by such a large margin. Indeed, it is even more interesting that over 100 MPs from the 2010 General Election were Oxford graduates, while around 50 were Cambridge (give or take, as some did not list their education and a few went to both). Of even greater interest is that three of candidates for the Labour leadership last year were also Oxonians, and they all read PPE.
Perhaps, like freemasonry, Oxford opens secret doors and enables one to climb the greasy pole with a deft handshake. Or is it simply that the University is closer to Eton College and London, and so geographically far more convenient for the rich and powerful to send their sons? Perhaps it is the Union, the rehearsal stage for Parliament, which hones and equips aspiring politicians with the necessary skills for high office. It has included Gladstone, Salisbury, Asquith, Macmillan and Heath as its presidents: indeed, from the present Cabinet, William Hague and Alan Duncan are both ex-Union presidents.
Yet the list of prime ministers who eschewed the Union is far greater than those who embraced it: Rosebery, Attlee, Eden, Home, Blair and Cameron all avoided the club, and Thatcher was barred by gender. She became instead president of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), which has also produced quite a few Cabinet members over the years.
It can’t be an Oxford ‘first’ that lights the path to No10, because Cameron is fairly unique in that respect (only Gladstone, Peel and Wilson took a first: Heath, Thatcher and Blair all earned second-class degrees). Perhaps it is the University’s political culture, or its rigours in law, history and the classics. Perhaps it is its tutorial system, which encourages debate and demands mini-speeches of mental dexterity. Whatever it is, there is little that is ‘disgraceful’ about this pre-eminent seat of learning. And the moment it is obliged by statute to select students by ethnic quota, it will be time to privatise.
At least until it can produce its 28th prime minister who might understand what the University is about.