How David Cameron doesn’t represent change

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The World

OXFORD, United Kingdom — The British election has finally ended. After a few twists and turns what seemed inevitable a few months ago has come to pass: David Cameron is prime minister. Cameron ran on the simple slogan "Time for Change." And while he might change some things about this country, one thing will stay the same: Oxford University will continue to exercise disproportionate influence on British political life.

In the last 50 years Britain has had 10 prime ministers. Eight, including Cameron, earned their undergraduate degrees at the university. By comparison, in the same half century, only one of the 10 American presidents attended Harvard as an undergraduate — John F. Kennedy.

Cameron’s inner circle further reasserts Oxford’s historic dominance: The Conservative Party leader’s best friend, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, Foreign Secretary William Hague and Education Secretary Michael Gove, all attended Oxford in the 1980s. And London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, was a classmate and rival of Cameron’s back in the days when both were members of Oxford’s notorious upper-class boozing society, the Bullingdon Club.

The special relationship of the Cameroons has already been chronicled in a television play, "When Boris Met Dave," written by Toby Young, a rough Oxford contemporary of Cameron. It aired on Channel Four, whose then-chairman Luke Johnson is also part of the Oxford crowd.

But Cameron’s prospects really took off when The Sun newspaper announced it was backing the Tories. The Sun is owned by Oxford grad Rupert Murdoch.

The Cameron government will be scrutinized constantly by news organizations run by Oxford grads including the biggest: the BBC. Mark Thompson, the Beeb’s director-general, is a graduate, as is political editor Nick Robinson. The BBC’s "constitutional expert" is Cameron’s former tutor, Oxford professor Vernon Bogdanor.

The lighter and corrupt side of the new government will be lampooned in Britain’s leading satirical magazine, Private Eye. Editor Ian Hislop calls Oxford his "alma mater."

The Oxford connection is also a factor in America. Professional atheist Christopher Hitchens and uber-editor Tina Brown attended Oxford a generation before Cameron et al. Professional gay-conservative-Catholic controversialist Andrew Sullivan’s time at the university fell between Hitchens and Cameron.

There are 133 universities in the United Kngdom. Surely one or two others might produce top-flight political leaders. Why in the 21st century should Oxford grads still dominate public life?

Partially, it’s the physical impact of the place. To spend three years of your life wandering up painfully pretty back streets like Queen’s Lane is to be invited to inhabit the guts of history. The first Oxford colleges were founded in the 11th and 12th centuries. And daily life reflects that unique heritage. Everything seems to happen with costumes on: You sit for exams wearing special gowns and the academic calendar is marked with traditional ceremony after traditional ceremony where fancy dress is required.

The education is about you, you, you. It is centered around a weekly one-on-one meeting with a tutor during which the student discusses an essay he or she has written. There are no classes and no semester grades as such, just exams taken at the end of the first and third years in the student’s major. They have to hope those one-on-one tutorials prepare them for that ordeal.
When not working on essays, undergraduates are free to attend lectures and learn as they please, to join clubs, to think great thoughts — or learn to politic. After three years of this a person might begin to feel that he or she is special, with a certain entitlement to a leading role in British society.

Another critical reason for the dominance of Oxford is that until very recently admissions were dominated by students from a handful of what the British call "public schools" — what the rest of the world calls private schools. They include places like Eton, where David Cameron and Boris Johnson were educated, and Westminster, where George Osborne and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg went to school. A 2008 study by the Sutton Trust showed that 3 percent of Britain’s secondary schools provided a third of the pupils accepted to Oxford and its elite counterpart Cambridge (Clegg’s alma mater). The public school graduates arrive at Oxford with an already well-developed sense of superiority that colors much of social life among undergrads.

It was big news about a decade ago when for the first time more state school students than public school students made up the Oxford student body. That trend is slowly continuing. Fifty-seven percent of the incoming 2010 class will have graduated from state schools, according to Mike Nicholson, Oxford University’s director of undergraduate admissions.

Nicholson said the undergraduate recruitment process is at the heart of Oxford’s success. It works very differently than in the U.S. Fewer people apply for Oxford’s roughly 3,200 spots than to Harvard or Stanford. One in five applicants is accepted. This is in part because British students who apply to Oxford cannot also apply to Cambridge.

The admissions criterion starts with proven academic performance at school and on standardized tests. However, the extracurricular activities beloved of American high school guidance counselors are not important for admission to the two elite British universities, known collectively as Oxbridge. What counts most, according to Nicholson, is "potential academic ability. Will a student flourish in the tutorial system?" In other words, you can be coached to do well on Kaplan tests but there is no way to be coached into talking the talk of the Oxford tutorial. This "talk" is hard to explain but you can get a sense of it listening to cultural programs on BBC radio.

This leads to the downside of Oxford recruitment. Many intellectually gifted high school students feel they can’t talk that rarefied talk — a confident style of speaking that evolved over the centuries when Oxford was even more thoroughly dominated by privately educated, upper-class types — and so do not bother to apply to Oxford.

Nicholson was one of those students. He admits his academic work in high school would have earned him at least consideration for admission, but he did not apply because he felt that he would not fit into Oxford society. Now his job is focused on undoing "the mystique of what it takes to get in" and encouraging a more socially diverse pool of high school students to apply.

Julia Paolitto has a transatlantic take on Oxford’s secret. A graduate of Yale who earned her doctorate from Oxford and who works for the university, Paolitto said being drilled in this style of speech is an extra that the Oxford grad earns in addition to a diploma.

"There’s an attractiveness in the way they can talk about themselves," Paolitto said. "They can articulate things in a way that graduates of other types of education might not."

On a recent afternoon, I wandered over to the Oxford Union, the university debating society, and found the paradigm of what Paolitto was talking about. Laura Winwood is the union’s president. Age 21 going on 50, Winwood runs the union from an office, up a grand staircase lined with photos of past union presidents, including William Hague, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. From her office, its walls lined with crusty old leather-bound books and a significant sound system pumping out progressive rock, Winwood and her team organize the lectures and debates that keep the union famous.

Winwood says the old stereotype of the Oxford student — a gent from Eton passing through, studying history and moving on to run the country — is out of date, although Cameron and his team fit that image, as does the fact that the union’s officers still attend debates wearing white ties and evening dress.

"I like the fact that we retain tradition," Winwood said. "That does not mean we are socially elitist."

Elegantly put, but the union presidency by its nature opens the door into the most elite strata of society. First of all it is an elected position, a perfect opportunity to practice politics before heading into that career. Second is what the job entails. Winwood explained that she was finalizing arrangements to bring Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia to speak at the union. That meant dealing directly with Najib’s office and making all the necessary logistical and security arrangements. It is the kind of practical experience that buffs up a resume when a graduate goes for her first job interviews.

This is the subtle way in which Oxford continues to influence British public life. When Winwood leaves she will get a good entry level job — she expressed interest in working as a management consultant. Down in London there will be a dense network of super-achieving Oxonians to look out for her.

But is what is good for Winwood and her peers good for the nation? Alex Connock, who runs a production company with Sir Bob Geldof, is one Oxford grad who has asked that question. Back in 1987, when Connock was an undergraduate, he and a number of his contemporaries wrote a book called "The Oxford Myth" (of course, this piece of undergraduate pomposity found a major publisher).

Connock revisited some of the book’s themes in a recent article for Cherwell, the student newspaper: " … naked ambition, so embarrassing to the Oxford student psyche, actually pays off. All those pushy people who are so annoyingly keen to run what are essentially pretend institutions at Oxford — the Union, this newspaper, clubs, whatever — are not all going to get the comeuppance you might think they deserve later in life. They’re going to end up running things for real."

Yet in an email interview Connock expressed ambivalence about the university’s clout, saying it could well cut the country off from many talented folks. Asked how many people of talent are immediately cut off from fulfilling their potential because of decisions made by an Oxford admission committee when they were 17 or 18? "I couldn’t put a number on it but it’s a big number," he said.

Connock added that it is not something added to the beer in Oxford’s junior common rooms that has led to the university’s dominance: "The fact that the Etonian crowd have come back to dominate the political scene is actually probably more about society in general than anything that happened whilst they were at Oxford."

That may be true and it should worry Britons. In America, when John F. Kennedy gathered the best and the brightest from the Ivy League around him, outsiders were dazzled, and Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson ended up with the Vietnam War. With a cabinet selected from an even narrower group, how likely is it that Prime Minister Cameron will find the outside-the-box thinker who might help devise a plan to deal with Britain’s towering deficit without destroying its fragile social cohesion?

In any case, Oxford’s dominance looks set to continue. The Labour Party is holding an election to replace Gordon Brown as leader and, hopefully, put them in position to win the next election. The three expected candidates are David Miliband, his brother, Ed, and Ed Balls. Yes, all three are graduates of Oxford.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that Private Eye’s Francis Wheen did not attend Oxford.

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