It is hard to imagine university authorities – or fellow students – at Queen Mary, SOAS or London Met tolerating the vandalism, drunkenness, immaturity, elitism and misogyny of the Bullingdon Club
A number of my male friends have admitted to inserting their genitalia in unusual places. One of them went on to have a distinguished career in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Egged on by their peers, most of these incidents took place at school, when the adolescents in question were about 14 years old and usually under the influence of alcohol.
By the time they got to university, my mostly state-educated friends had matured and no longer engaged in such conduct. On reaching adulthood, our peer groups were less tolerant of boorish behaviour, which acted as a check on such actions.
The Lord Ashcroft allegations raise some serious issues, including Cameron’s awareness of his non-dom tax status. But I think ‘Piggate’ also raises issues of social class and social segregation within the UK’s higher education system, as well as university discipline.
The Bullingdon Club and Piers Gaveston Society still exist and still engage in such antics, sustained by an accepting peer group of former public schoolboys. It is hard to imagine university authorities – or fellow students – at Queen Mary, SOAS or London Met tolerating the vandalism, drunkenness, immaturity, elitism and misogyny from the likes of the Bullingdon Club.
It has been interesting to talk to my teenage sons about the Piggate allegations. We were all amused by the jokes that circulated on Twitter. Surprisingly to me, my sons and their friends seem to accept the allegations as an example of the behaviour of the UK’s elite. ‘That’s just the kind of thing they do at Oxford, isn’t it?’ said one of them, sighing.
Although my state-educated children consider themselves to be middle class, my oldest son decided not to apply to Oxford, feeling that the university was for ‘toffs’ and that he would not fit in. Among his friends that applied, all of them chose colleges that had a high intake of state school students, a decision that I also made in 1977, when I decided to apply to Oxford.
One of my concerns is that Piggate damages the image of Oxford University and undoes its attempts to increase its intake of state-educated students, particularly those from low income families. Here the university has far to go. Just under 7 per cent of UK-educated children attend independent schools. This figure has been fairly constant since the 1960s. Yet in 1978, when I took up my place at St Anne’s College, Oxford, 53 per cent of Oxford University’s UK undergraduates came from independent schools.
Skip forward to 2014, 46 per cent of Oxford’s UK undergraduates came from independent schools, with the ex-pupils of Eton, Westminster and St Paul’s snapping up 260 places between them. At the same time, two in three state schools sent no pupils to Oxbridge.
Although the state-educated now make up the majority of Oxford’s UK-domiciled undergraduates, those from comprehensive schools are under-represented, compared to those from academically selective schools. Undergraduates who were once entitled to free school meals are even more likely to be under-represented, with just 50 such undergraduates admitted in 2011.
Despite greater access to university education and many widening participation initiatives, little progress has been made to increase Oxford’s intake of students from low income families over nearly 40 years. This is an issue for all Russell Group universities; it’s just that this trend is most marked at Oxford and Cambridge.
There are many reasons for this, which include A-Level grades, choice of A-Level subjects and the confidence of prospective students at interview. Risk adverse college tutors who interview and admit students in small often take more polished and articulate public school product. (There are strong arguments for taking the responsibility for admissions away from Oxbridge colleges and handing them to university departments).
Research also suggests that any bright state-educated students are also put off by their perceptions about Oxbridge or their teachers’ perceptions. A Sutton Trust poll in 2014 claimed that 40 per cent of state school teachers “rarely or never” suggest that academically gifted pupils apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, because they believe their pupils have stand little chance of success, or simply will not fit in. In the latter respect, the Piggate affair will not have improved perceptions about Oxbridge.
All English universities now sign an annual agreement with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA). These set out targets to improve university access among under-represented groups, including those from low income families. Set up ten years ago, OFFA’s access agreements have led to progress, although this needs to be seen in context of increased access to university by students from all sectors of society. But efforts to get more state-school students into Oxford are remarkably slow, and even slower from those from low income families.
For me, the Piggate allegations highlight the social segregation in the higher education sector. The University of Oxford should look long and hard at its image and the behaviour of some of its students. It also needs to overhaul its admissions system and push harder on widening participation. In 2015 the continued grip of a few public schools on my old university is a barrier to social mobility.
Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot ForwardLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.