How to classify the story that there are a thousand fewer UK-born undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge than there were ten years ago? For those (seemingly all three main political parties) who love subjecting education to social control, is this good news? Is it a roaring success for ‘diversity’ (in the same period, Oxford numbers of overseas undergraduates rose by 51 per cent and Cambridge numbers by 65 per cent)? Or is it an example of social regression, since the main feature of most overseas undergraduates is that they pay much higher fees, and therefore are of much greater interest to the university authorities than our own fee-capped students?
The whole tale is full of ironies. Nearly 40 years ago, Mrs Thatcher, then newly prime minister, provoked outrage by abolishing the government subsidy for overseas students. It was alleged that this would cut us off from the wider world. The exact opposite happened. When she abolished the subsidy, she also abolished the quota which had until then controlled the number of overseas students. Since the students were now paying real money, the universities threw themselves open to the wider world as never before. Obviously these students are of every sort of ethnic background. Equally obviously, they are predominantly rich. Their growth does tend to squeeze out indigenous students who must be, on average, poorer. The truth is that no policy ever devised has seriously challenged the dominance of hereditary elites at Oxford and Cambridge, except for one. This was a thing called the grammar school, but you don’t hear about it much these days.
This article is an extract from Charles Moore's Spectator Notes, available in this week's magazine.