The Prince and I
Letting the riffraff into Cambridge
23 october 2004, guardian
I was a fabulously naive 17 year old but even I could guess that when the Cambridge admissions tutor asks, ‘Does your school realise this university has rather high standards?’ the interview is not going well.
My O-level grades weren’t the best but I’d won a national essay prize, £100 from the history dons of Peterhouse, so we both knew this comprehensive kid was some way off thick.
He tapped his pencil against my application form.
‘Father’s occupation: unemployed.’
He regarded me over his specs.
‘What business was he in?’
I said, ‘He was a school caretaker.’
He smiled. ‘I think we can consider this interview over. Don’t you?’
I said, ‘You let Raymond Williams in and his dad was a signalman.’
In my dreams. I wish I had.
Running away down Jesus Lane I gulped back tears and thought, ‘They can keep their bloody architecture.’
Then, I remembered, back at the college was my coat and my essay book, my wallet, my ticket home.
I trudged back, gathered it up, headed off again and passed another office where at that moment I was supposed to be having my second interview, this time with the history don. I couldn’t tell my teachers that I’d skipped it.
The history man said he hadn’t read my form; he didn’t like to be swayed by preconceptions. He asked me about Henry Bolingbroke and Quentin Skinner and some other stuff that excited me back then and he didn’t seem remotely interested in my dad.
I did their exam. They let me in.
I met few students from my kind of background — all of us white, by the way. Two fled and came back another year. One disappeared for good.
I don’t think it was the work that scared them off. The culture, maybe. Those drunken boys from first rate schools who’d yell, ‘Get your kit off!’ at the women, and ‘debag’ another male, rip his trousers off, or strip him naked and peg him to the croquet lawn. That kind of thing.
After I was elected college students’ president on a platform of softer loo paper and more state school students we lobbied the dons to let us produce a new college prospectus aimed directly at state schools.
One older fellow puffed on his pipe and drawled, ‘Come on, it’s not as if we want to encourage applications from the children of dustmen.’
We got our prospectus with help from more liberal dons but they broadened its scope so as not to upset the usual prestige contacts.
When we suggested they run summer schools for bright working-class kids they laughed. They had no enthusiasm for the cause.
And why would they? Many fellows considered undergraduates a distraction from the proper business of Cambridge, which was research. The title ‘admissions tutor’ was the dreary burden of academics whose real work had got stuck in the mud.
Requests that had to do with broadening access were met with the fellows’ reply that ‘social engineering’ wasn’t their game.
We’re hearing a lot of that now:
Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford, complaining that the government’s views on social engineering forced universities to take students they didn’t want.
Michael Beloff, president of Trinity College, Oxford, asserting that universities were ‘educational institutions, not laboratories for social engineering.’
‘Raw intelligence,’ he said, ‘is not enough for an Oxford course. It has to be developed to a particular point.’
Back in my college days, twenty-odd years ago, the term ‘social engineering’ struck my untuned ear as exactly what Cambridge was doing: encouraging rich parents to buy children of sometimes modest talents an unfair advantage in the world.
Of course, the brightest public school kids were brilliant, quite brilliant, as were the brightest kids from state schools.
But the social ease, the assumed superiority public schools can teach, the veneer of cleverness they apply, helped to disguise less able students’ banality. The thickest ones might have struggled to get into any decent university had they been to schools such as mine.
Bright kids pop up in all sorts of places — city comps, sink estates, every ethnic group. They don’t all achieve perfect grades as teenagers. That doesn’t mean they won’t walk away with a first class degree at 21.
Maybe, when Mr Beloff and Mr Patten recoil from taking on more working-class students, they’re letting slip, among other things, that dons don’t have the wit to judge potential.
And if some working-class kids have Mr Beloff’s ‘raw intelligence’ but lack grooming, then I suggest he invites them on summer courses and sees how well they do.
Around the time of my interview a boy from Gordonstoun, called Edward, strolled in for some milder interviews than mine and got a place on A-level grades that might qualify him for Stafford Poly, via the pool. Among the hobbies on his application form he listed drama, skiing, and, if memory serves me right, flying, too. Under ‘parents’ occupations’ he was able to write: ‘Queen and Consort.’
Was this social engineering? I think so.