‘Should I just have done with it and tell them they’re a bunch of tossers?’
I was on my way to speak at the Durham Union. The motion was ‘This House believes the NHS is out of date’. And, as usual, I was on the ‘wrong’ side of the debate — so why should I even bother? You know beforehand which way the vote is going to go at any university debate these days: the one which enables the snowflakes most easily to signal their virtue.
But, on the spur of the moment, I decided to give Durham the benefit of the doubt. ‘I was going to be incredibly rude to you,’ I began. ‘Which you totally deserve for being a bunch of snowflakes who are going to vote against the motion because hashtag “I heart the NHS”. But instead I’m going to make a case by appealing to your intellects…’
I could scarcely believe what happened next. The audience listened. They laughed at my jokes. When I made eye contact, they didn’t look away nervously like I was some snarling right-wing pariah with whom they wanted nothing to do. Then, perhaps most amazingly of all, they voted by 75 to 50 in favour of the motion.
Now I accept that this was partly thanks to the brilliance of my co-speaker, Kate Andrews of the Institute of Economic Affairs, who was eloquent, reasonable and fearsomely well-briefed. Our opponents, with their ‘envy of the world’ pabulum, just didn’t have a prayer.
Except at both the Oxford and Cambridge Unions, I know, the other side would still definitely have won. I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating, just to annoy him: the last time I debated at Oxford, the ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger gave a boilerplate speech of such unutterably predictable, dreary, fatuous lefty tosh that I honestly thought the undergraduates would feel insulted by its glib platitudinousness. Instead, they just couldn’t get enough of it. Bizarre, I thought at the time.
No, worse, I realise after my Durham experience: tragic. I know some of you think I bang on about Oxford so infatuatedly I sound like Withnail’s Uncle Monty recalling his first love Norman ‘and his poetry book stained with the butter drips from crumpets’. But I care because it’s my alma mater, because it really did shape my intellect in a way for which I’ll be eternally grateful and because I want it to go on being the amazing, liberating playground of ideas that it was in my butter-stained youth. These days, I fear, in order to recreate that echt Oxbridge experience, you need to apply, not to Oxford or Cambridge, but to one of those establishments such as Durham which we used to scoff at for being filled with Oxbridge rejects.
They still are filled with Oxbridge rejects, of course, but of such a high calibre that they would once have been a shoo-in. Quite a hefty portion come from the private schools against which, anecdotal evidence suggests, Oxbridge admissions tutors are becoming increasingly prejudiced. If you’re someone like the radical-left politician Michael ‘soak the rich’ Gove, who recently argued for public schools to be stung for VAT so that they can be punished even more than they are already, you’ll no doubt consider this anti-elitism a healthy thing. But after my own — admittedly brief — recent trips I’d say that in its eagerness to purge itself of students from a certain kind of background, Oxbridge is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Take, for example, the right-on enthusiasm for recruiting Greats candidates from schools that don’t do Latin or Greek. The theory goes that by the fourth year, these eager state-school kids will have attained the same proficiency as private-school ones who have been hothoused on classics since they were eight or nine. But I gather that only the Oxbridge classics tutors who have drunk the social justice Kool-Aid actually believe this has worked in practice. The rest are worried about declining long-term standards and are also a bit frustrated: if you’re an Oxbridge classics don, you want to teach Oxbridge–level classics — not catch-up for beginners.
Then there’s the money thing. At dinner the other night I sat next to the wife of a Cambridge-educated billionaire whose privately educated son wasn’t even going to consider applying to Oxford or Cambridge because of their anti-public-school prejudice. She spelled out what this meant: no lavish bequests; no more donations — not even to her husband’s old college, because who wants to donate to a college that won’t take your son? Apparently — and she knows: these are the circles she moves in — a lot of her friends feel the same way and Oxbridge is increasingly feeling the pinch. How — if it continues to discriminate against such people — does Oxbridge hope to compete with US rivals like the University of Southern California, where a campaign has raised $6 billion in alumnus donations?
You could argue that none of this matters: that it is only right that Oxbridge should discriminate against posh kids who have been taught well and know stuff and seek out state-educated ones who may work harder and who may turn out to be brighter.
My counterargument would be that, in its well-meaning attempt to broaden its social mix, Oxbridge has accidentally achieved the opposite: creating a sterile, conformist, PC monoculture of earnest state-indoctrinated Stakhanovites from which the children of the sun have been all but expunged, exiled to more simpatico institutions like Durham, Bristol and Edinburgh, whose standards have been raised greatly by this influx of talent. Hardly anyone will publicly admit this stuff because it sounds snobbish. But lots of you reading this will know it to be true.