This is a speech given by the Master, Roger Mosey, at the event in college for parents and guardians of current students on November 11th, 2017.
This, as you probably know, is our first parents’ dinner; and it adds to the welcome drinks when you deliver your freshers and the lunch we offer in the first year, as a way of underlining that the families of our students are important to us too – a part of the Selwyn community.
Now, you come to a Cambridge that has been somewhat under fire in recent weeks… some of the media big guns have been bombarding our ancient buildings. We had the row over admissions, with David Lammy MP writing that Oxbridge colleges are “fiefdoms of privilege, the last bastions of the old school tie.” Then there was then one of our recent alumnae, Lola Olufemi who graduated this summer, and who was featured on the front page of the Daily Telegraph with the headline “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors” – which wasn’t actually true, and certainly not what she wanted; but it set off more days of coverage with a ‘barmy Oxbridge’ theme. Stir in then also the controversy about universities and Brexit; an email from a director of studies at Queens’ College; and the Daily Mail doing a whole page spread on the Lefties now running Oxbridge colleges. I featured in that because I used to work for the BBC (so obviously bang to rights) and I now sometimes write for the notorious left-wing New Statesman.
And I can tell you that half the heads of house in Cambridge were bemused and angry by being on the Daily Mail list; and the other half were bemused and angry that they weren’t on the Daily Mail list.
But in fact the past few weeks have reminded me of being at the BBC, where you have pretty much consistent incoming fire about all the bad things you’re alleged to have done… and I’ve sometimes thought that the BBC and Cambridge do have a similar position in our national life. They are, I believe, great institutions – and without them the country would be poorer in every sense. And yet they are sometimes under siege in a way that foreign observers can’t understand. If you were in the United States under President Trump, you might just yearn for an independent public service broadcaster that still has a strong share of the market and a commitment to truth. Equally, if you’re in France or Germany or other countries which don’t have universities ranked in the world’s top 20: you might envy Britain as a place where Higher Education truly seems to work and where we retain a global reputation.
And it’s not about just a flurry of headlines in recent weeks. The Guardian runs a section which is grouped online as ‘Oxbridge and elitism’ – which is a bit rich for a newspaper that is largely run by people from Oxbridge. It recently published a piece which you may have seen entitled ‘Oxbridge may be unfixable. Perhaps it should be abolished’ – by Phil McDuff. Let me give you a sample.
“The reality is that these institutions (Oxford and Cambridge) sit at the very heart of the British establishment. An Oxbridge degree is a passport to the upper echelons of British power and public life… If the Bullingdon Club boys promoted above their ability are the obvious pollutants, a congealed fatberg of privilege clogging the arteries of government, the broader hidden pollution of Oxbridge’s domination of public life is the creation of an intellectual monoculture…” He also says, for good measure: “I heard of students with northern accents being called ‘pit monkeys’ when they attended open days.” And finally he quotes David Andress of the University of Portsmouth, who has suggested a novel approach. In his view Oxford and Cambridge should stop taking undergraduate students altogether, ‘breaking the conveyor belt from private school to establishment’.
Now where do you begin in responding to that? My godson is at the University of Portsmouth and he loves it there, but do we really take as seriously as The Guardian the view from one of Portsmouth’s academics that Cambridge should be shut down for students? Has anyone here called Northerners ‘pit monkeys’? And how is that ‘intellectual monoculture’ going? Students will know that I say at the matriculation dinner that, if we produce a whole bunch of people who think alike, we will have failed – and we haven’t.
It’s quite easy to fulminate about this, so let me be equally honest that Cambridge is not perfect. There is more we need to do to show that Cambridge is open for everyone, and that we want the brightest and best irrespective of their family or financial backgrounds. That’s why we as a university spend £5m a year on outreach.
But let’s also look at the facts. These are validated by the central university.
Cambridge’s latest admissions statistics show the highest proportion of state-educated students in 35 years; and a significant increase in the proportion of UK students coming from the hardest to reach communities – which is probably not what you read in the papers.
In reality: the number of successful applicants from postcode areas with the lowest rates of participation in HE increased from 3.3% in 2016 to 4.5% in 2017.
In the University as a whole, over 63% of Home students who started their studies last month came from state schools and colleges. At Selwyn the figure is 71%. Cambridge now has a higher proportion of state educated students than Durham, St Andrews and Bristol – and we’re very significantly higher than Oxford too. And I should underline that we seek to be fair to all students, whether they’re from state schools or independent ones.
So how are we doing on ethnic minorities, where we were condemned by David Lammy and others? Well, the UK BME population is usually put at 14 per cent. If you saw Question Time a couple of weeks ago, David Dimbleby said our percentage of non-white students was “poor and decreasing”. It’s actually this year 21.8% of our Home freshers, which is the highest figure ever. Among Black British students, the number is increasing too – up 30% in a decade, and we calculate that a quarter of all African-Caribbean UK students who get at least 2 A* and an A at A-Level come here to Cambridge.
I could go on – but you’ll get the message, I hope. There’s more work to be done, of course; but we have an overwhelmingly good story to tell… and we will keep trying to make it better.
It reminds us, though, that we have a battle to show the world the real Cambridge. And I’m sure in doing that we have to emphasise two things. The first, of course, is that Cambridge and Selwyn are good for the students who come here: a high level of personal teaching, and the best pastoral care we can offer. You leave here with a world-class university degree. But the second thing is that we believe we’re good for Britain and the wider world. We’re global leaders in science and technology, we help produce the breakthroughs in healthcare and the environment; and we also try to understand our society through its laws, its literature and its history and politics. At a time when the world is dominated by short-termism, we’re about taking the long view; and what we collectively need now are the learning and the rational approach that are the hallmarks of a university like Cambridge.
So I hope our students here and your wider families will join us in articulating the case for Cambridge. But let me note there’s a challenge because sometimes, maybe because of all the nonsense that’s being sprouted elsewhere, people are reticent about what we do here. I can admit myself that, as a student in the 1970s, I didn’t always say when I was back in my home city of Bradford that I was studying at the University of Oxford. I used to mutter about ‘being at college’… And it still goes on, for perfectly understandable reasons. There is at least one set of parents in this room and at least two students who’ve said to me that they in 2017 have been known to underplay or not mention Cambridge because they’re worried about being thought to be blowing their own trumpet too much.
Which, as I say, I understand – because I did it myself. But we can all tell that actually the best ambassadors for Cambridge are the kind of undergraduates in this room: intelligent, ambitious for their communities, divergent in their thought, socially aware – and often touchingly kind in the way they deal with others. The Fellows and I are genuinely, deeply proud of our students.
So let me finish tonight by saying that for parents here we’d love you to continue to be involved with the college in the years ahead – whether that’s by becoming a Friend of Selwyn or by continuing to follow our news and speaking kindly of us when you’re back home. And for students, it’s an equally simple prescription. Be yourselves in all your diversity, and exemplify what Cambridge does and what it believes. We’ve survived more than 800 years, whatever the world has thrown at us; but don’t underestimate the extent to which we need to keep fighting for a future which is every bit as glorious as our past.