Degrees of bribery

Degrees of bribery

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

‘Revealed: degrees for sale at Oxford college’, ran the frontpage of The Sunday Times on 24 March 2002 (1). An undercover reporter posing as a wealthy banker was told by representatives of Pembroke College that, were he to donate £300,000 to the college, they would look ‘extremely favourably’ upon an application from his son.

No doubt this kind of thing has long gone on at Oxford and Cambridge – if more subtly through the traditional Old Boys’ network (the nudge of an admissions tutor in the Quad: ‘his father is a friend of mine’). ‘Money talks’, gasped The Sunday Times strapline – and let’s face it, three hundred grand could make quite a difference to a college like Pembroke, which, in the words of college senior fellow Reverend John Platt, is ‘poor as shit’.

So why, now, is this story such a shocker? It is in the context of New Labour’s attacks on elitism and snobbery that the ‘degrees for sale’ scandal can become a big issue. Anything that smacks of old-style privilege is out of order in New Britain – and that includes just about everything to do with Oxford and Cambridge.

UK education secretary Estelle Morris was quick to put the boot in. ‘Admissions are a matter for the university, but this is unacceptable’, she said. ‘It flies in the face of what we are all trying to achieve, which is a higher education system where access is gained through ability and achievement, rather than background.’

But who is the New Labour government to talk about prizing achievement over background? The government has recently considered its own schemes for encouraging universities to take students on the basis of their socioeconomic status and ethnic origin – and a House of Commons select committee suggested on 7 February 2001 that universities be given financial incentives (one could say bribes) to take candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds (see Aiming lower, by Sandy Starr).

Given their potential scope, it is these policies, rather than the one-off deals cut at Oxford colleges, that pose the biggest threat to meritocracy in education today. It is worth noting that affirmative action policies in the USA judged people on the basis of their background as much as Old Boys networks ever did.

This is not to let Pembroke College off the hook. Of course students should get admitted on the basis of their ability, not on their wealth or connections. But meritocracy was not totally absent in this story – if anything, it shows that money talks, but it doesn’t necessarily call the shots.

Pembroke was the fourth college that our ‘banker’ had tried – three had already said no. And Pembroke was not prepared to take a total dimwit, even for £300,000 – the banker’s son would probably have to get two As and a B, and the tutors would have to think that he was capable of getting a 2:1 class degree. It is not surprising that, even in a ‘degrees for cash’ moment, an Oxford college felt obliged to consider standards. No Oxford college that cares about educational standards can completely disregard merit. If colleges really did take students on the basis of their father’s money they would end up with a bunch of Hooray Henrys and lose all credibility.

As college fellow Reverend Platt pointed out, letting the son in on a free ticket wouldn’t do him much good, either. ‘I think for him, he’s got to be prepared…if I may say so for his own pride…to know that if he gets it he gets it at least to a fair degree on his own merit’. This is a far cry from handing over degree certificates for cash – as the headlines implied.

Estelle Morris and co would do well to hear this. You can only really feel good about getting into Oxford if you achieved it for yourself. Getting in on the basis of government subsidies wouldn’t be any better that getting in on the basis of your rich dad’s cash.

Read on:

Aiming lower, by Sandy Starr

Are university degrees worthless?, by Mick Hume

The classless university, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: Education

With the publication of the Dearing report in 1997, many were already floating the idea that university standards should be lowered to accommodate working-class and disadvantaged students. Read what spiked-writers Jennie Bristow and Brendan O’Neill said about it at the time:

Not so endearing, by Jennie Bristow

Second-class students, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) Sunday Times, 24 March 2002

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Topics Politics


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