Oxford University 'Elitism' Comes Under Government Fire
Story of rejected high school student followed closely by British press
Harvard is not often portrayed as anti-elitist. But to much of the British media, Harvard's admission of a middle class student rejected from Oxford has proved just that.
A straight-A student from Northern England, Laura Spence, who was accepted at Harvard, has set off battles in Britain over Oxford's reputation of elitism and the possibility of government introduced "top-up" tuition fees.
"It's enormous here," said Beth A. Schonmuller '01, who is currently completing a semester at Oxford. "It's all over all the papers and everyone is talking about it."
The "Spence Affair" story appeared in 157 major newspaper yesterday alone.
Much of the controversy stems from Oxford's reputed preference for applicants from privileged backgrounds over those who had attended state schools.
The British press has cast Spence's admission to Harvard as indication that American universities are less elitist than their British counterparts.
And now members of the British government are using the incident to attempt educational reform.
Gordon Brown, British chancellor of the exchequer and second to Prime Minister Tony Blair has called Oxford's decision to reject Spence "an absolute scandal."
Brown has said Spence was the victim of "an interview system that is more reminiscent of the old boy network and the old school tie than genuine justice in our society."
"It is about time for an end to that old Britain where what matters more are the privileges you are born with rather than the potential you actually have," Brown said.
Brown has also warned that top English schools could lose out on academic stars if they reject them because of social reasons.
Yet, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported this week that Spence was ranked 11 out of 23 candidates applying to study medicine at Oxford's Magdalen College, and only five positions were available.
Oxford has responded to the controversy by releasing statistics showing that middle-class students are proportionally represented at the school.
Various student groups and publications on Oxford's campus have also voiced their opposition to the accusations of elitism.
"Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) condemns the cynically minded attempt by Gordon Brown and the Government to jump on a populist bandwagon and level claims of elitism at Oxford University," according to a recent press release.
Yet the "class wars," as some Oxford students have termed it, may also be the British government's strategy to pave the way for somewhat unpopular legislation.
"The government got on the back of this story," OUSU Press Officer Jeff S. Glekin said. "At the beginning of the week it was a very small story but then Gordon Brown condemned Oxford."
The Labor government currently in power is expected to release a plan in which education in England would be funded similarly to education in United States.
Currently, university education is free for eligible students, but the new "top-up" fees could change that system.
Students, or their parents, would have to pay for their education if they could afford it. More competitive universities would cost more than less competitive ones.
While this may not seem like a novel idea to Americans, British students say this is a revolutionary idea.
"We don't see Britain as a fair system to compare to America," Glekin said. "We're so different culturally and economically. That education should be free for all is entrenched in people's minds here."
Oxford students are actively protesting the possible change in legislation and are complaining that the attack on Oxford has an ulterior motive.
"If the government is really committed to stamping out elitism in higher education then they should reinstate the grant, abolish tuition fees and reaffirm their commitment to rule out top-up fees," OUSO President Anneliese Dodds said.