A leading University of Cambridge academic has warned that children risk being turned off applying to Oxford and Cambridge because of crude caricatures of their ‘toff image’.
According to Professor Robert Lethbridge top universities are being forced to go to extra lengths to counter the “self-deprecatory dimension of Englishness” that takes pride in attacking academic excellence. He warned that Oxbridge continued to be seen as a “lazy target” for politicians and media commentators who portray the universities as Brideshead Revisited-style bastions of “social immobility and inherited privilege”.
Professor Lethbridge, the Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, and Provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust, also said that Britain failed to properly celebrate academic success and seemed to be gripped by a “mindset which doesn’t want anyone to fail”.
The comments were made just weeks after research by the Sutton Trust found that the majority of UK state school teachers were refusing to advise their brightest pupils to apply to Oxbridge amid fears they were too elitist. Oxford Royale Academy reported on this worrying finding here. The Government has also repeatedly criticised top research institutions for failing to admit enough students from state schools.
But Professor Lethbridge insisted Oxford and Cambridge could not “try any harder to reach out to applicants from every background in this country and every kind of school”. Speaking to the UK’s The Daily Telegraph, he said: “I think we need to constantly stress that, at the very top of our education system, we are utterly meritocratic. We need to counter the self-deprecatory dimension of Englishness and we need to no longer retail the Brideshead Revisited, toff image of Oxford and Cambridge which some uninformed people find as a lazy target.”
Professor Lethbridge made the comments as part of an interview to makr a vital milestone for the Gates Cambridge Trust – a £210m scholarship established at Cambridge for international students by Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder. This month sees the 10th anniversary of the first graduations. The programme attracts around 4,000 application for 90 places each year. Professor Lethbridge suggested that students from other countries were desperate to strive for Cambridge but feared that some bright school-leavers from Britain were being held back.
“I suspect again that it is a problem of image, perception and prejudice and also a mindset which doesn’t want anyone to fail. We find it polemically interesting to retail the idiosyncractic dimensions of what our top universities are about. It is the country house, aristocratic image of the nineteenth century.
When students come to Cambridge, they are absolutely astonished that it bears no resemblance to what they saw on TV and we have got to change that image.”
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