Access

from The Oxford Magazine Second Week, Hilary Term, 1996

My Jude walked through Wytham Woods. Often in October, when the leaves are a tired green, before the autumn colours burst out in glory, I find myself walking along the track that was the A40 of its day, making my way from the Welsh Marches, Bredwardine sometimes in my imagination, or later Ledbury, or Presteigne, with an eked out store of bread in my bundle and a letter from my parish priest to a fellow of an Oxford college in my pocket. I come to the end of the woods, and round a corner, and then I see Oxford, not as I actually saw it when I was up for a scholarship in 1947 at the end of Shinwell's winter, when the brick of North Oxford was red in the setting sun beyond a blue sea of flooded Thames, but a smaller, stone-built Oxford set in green pasture and freshly ploughed stubble. It meant first and foremost food, a decent meal and somewhere to sleep; but also a future, many futures unfolded: bishop, chancellor, cardinal, perhaps even Pope; or later, Parliament, the Bench, the Woolsack; I had left the limited life of the village behind me, the ploughman plodding his humble homely way, and all thing were possible. Already savouring the sweet smell of success, I almost forgot how hungry I was, as I came down the hill and made my way across the valley and the original ford into the city itself, asking my way to the college that was to be my other mother.

It is a powerful vision, one that has often sustained me through the grimmer moments of the Admissions process, one that often changes as I read other visions in the palimpsest of dreams that constitute the Oxford of men's minds. Oxford changes men's minds, what is thought of success, and for every Oxonian who has made it to the top of the tree, there are many who have lived lives of settled low content as schoolmaster, parson, doctor, or attorney, not because they have failed to win the glittering prizes, but because they have seen through the glitter of reputation to the gold of real achievement, and look back on their days in Oxford as a time of intellectual friendship and discovery, when they came to know themselves and what their course in life should be. For many, indeed, this has been their goal from the outset. Some have sought felicity. For some the escape has been from the biological confines of a woman's world into the kingdom of the mind, accounting it to be a privilege to end up as a schoolmistress sharing with others the excitements she first encountered in a library in Oxford. The jibe that the value of an Oxford education is that it enables you to do without the money it prevents you from earning has its point---though those against whom it is aimed will see it as a benefit rather than a loss.

In recent years the official picture of the Oxford entrant has changed. He is a financial analyst who works out carefully the cost of going to Oxford, and the increased income he will be able to earn in consequence, and reckons that it is worth mortgaging some future income to pay for training that will enhance it further. It is a possible picture: modern man plans to make good in the service of Mammon, where his predecessors hoped to rise in the service of God. But it is subtly different, both in its assumptions about the nature of Oxford and in the constituency to be addressed. Traditionally, Oxford has not been in the business of enhancing its graduates' earning capacity, but enabling them to serve better. The return on the money and labour expended on our pupils has been in what has been passed on by clergy and schoolmasters, a deeper understanding of justice on the part of our lawyers, a more competent and devoted civil service. Occasionally an Oxonian becomes seriously rich, and having no family of his own, leaves money to enable the good work to continue, but this is to the side of our main effort, which is concerned with the discovery of knowledge and deepening of understanding, not the inculcation of marketable skills. And the people we most want to attract are not would-be whizz-kids who calculate that an Oxford degree will pay off in only a few years, but those who value less privative goods, and whose ambitions are of a public and less pecuniary kind.

As the undergraduate grant is gradually eroded, we shall have increasing difficulty in attracting all those who ought to be seeking entrance here. The loan system makes perfect sense to those who aspire to a money-making career, and will not deter those from home-owning parents for whom mortgages are a natural way of life. But can we be confident that there are not others deterred by financial fears from thinking of Oxford? We know that each year the proportion of those admitted from State schools diminishes. There are other factors at work---the abolition of the grammar schools, the dearth of Oxbridge graduates becoming teachers, and most recently the changes in the entrance examination---but anyone imbued with the traditional working-class horror of getting into debt would put Oxford out of mind, as he wondered what to do on leaving school.

What is to be done? In the end we shall have to reinstate entrance scholarships, awarded on merit and assessed on need, but there are formidable difficulties, particularly in determining need, assessing it fairly and preventing abuse. Immediately, however, we need to experiment on a small scale, possible at present since the grant is only a little eroded, to discover who have the ability but not the money to think of coming to Oxford, and how best to help them. In recent years there has been much talk of Access Grants, and money has been asked for and given in order to fund them, but so far we have been only helping those who have already come here to stay here in spite of unforeseen financial problems. But that, though a worthy use of money, does not address the problem of those who are not here, but should be. Any initiative in such a matter must come from individual colleges---and some colleges here and in Cambridge are stirring---but it is important that it should not be seen as a move on the part of a few colleges to tap a new pool of talent, but as an attempt by Oxford and Cambridge as a whole to revert to an older practice---for which many of our benefactors specifically endowed us---whereby those who were clever but poor could come to us in spite of an absence of family backing and without requiring them to burden themselves with debt.

See also Strategy for Survival

Return to home page