For a Real Oxbridge Education, You Now Have to Go to Durham

Attempts to broaden the social mix at Oxford and Cambridge have instead created a sterile PC monoculture

‘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 The motion was ‘This House believes the NHS is out of date’.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.

Read the rest at the Spectator.

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