Culture Schools
    The Winklevoss Twins are graduates of Oxford's Said business school (Getty)

    The Winklevoss Twins are graduates of Oxford's Said business school (Getty)

    How Oxbridge PhDs became the preserve of the super-rich

    28 February 2020

    Oxford and Cambridge have gone to great lengths over the last few years to increase the number of admissions of state-school educated students at undergraduate level – to varying degrees of success. As Robin Harman reported in Spectator Life recently, there’s still a worrying disparity between the number of offers made to disadvantaged pupils and the take-up of those offers, even though the number of offers made has risen steadily.

    Yet the most striking inequity in Oxbridge admissions occurs at postgraduate level – something that is barely mentioned in media or political debates around higher education, possibly because the privileged students who make up a disproportionate number of Oxbridge postgraduates are mostly not from the ranks of the British middle-class, but rather from those of the international rich.

    Around 64 per cent of post-grads at Oxford are international students, yet fewer than half of all postgrads have funding. This is particularly apparent at Masters level, where funding is scarcer than PhD and the fees often eye-watering: the cheapest post-graduate course at Oxford costs £7,730, while an MSc in financial economics costs £42,890. As Scarlett Mansfield noted in The Guardian, ‘there is not a single needs-based postgraduate scholarship at Oxford for British students’, whereas at US universities such as Harvard financial aid is based on need, not merit, with poorer students guaranteed funding.

    The difficulty in acquiring funding for post-graduate degrees means the children of the international super-rich are over-represented, for they have no problem paying up to £40,000 in annual fees plus living expenses.

    Oxford and Cambridge do not compile statistics on the percentage of private school alumni among their international postgraduate students, but you can bet your house that it is significantly higher than the roughly 35 per cent of British undergrads who attended such schools: if you think that anything more than a tiny number of the thousands of Chinese, Middle Eastern and American students currently enrolled on postgraduate degrees at Oxbridge colleges attended local state schools, I have a bridge to sell you.

    Attend a PhD mixer at an Oxbridge college and it’s like a United Nations for the 1 per cent. There’s the grandson of a Greek shipping tycoon; the daughter of a man who owns a Lithuanian bank; a guy whose thesis is funded by the Qatari government; the Saudi brothers who jet in and out weekly from the Gulf.

    Oxford’s Said Business School is a conspicuous offender, with recent graduates including a Kazakhstani oligarch, a Japanese tycoon, one of Pakistan’s richest men, and the Winklevoss brothers – the twins portrayed in The Social Network, for whom degrees from Harvard (and a $65 million settlement from Mark Zuckerberg) were apparently not sufficient.

    In providing a means for the rich to put a prestigious institution on their CVs, the Said School is certainly not unusual – one of its main competitors, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, was famously attended by a certain Donald J. Trump – and Oxford might reasonably argue that the money from Said attendees subsidises fees for students elsewhere. Yet if the Oxford undergraduate intake had the same socio-economic profile as their MBAs, there would be a public outcry.

    With doctoral researchers, the academic ability of the students is not in question, and I am certainly not suggesting that academics are recommending students for PhD programmes simply because they can pay the fees. Nonetheless, to be accepted to study for a doctorate at Oxford or Cambridge you do not have to pass the rigorous selection process required of undergraduates; while there are minimum academic requirements, non-science applicants are normally not interviewed, and the most important aspect is convincing an academic to supervise your thesis. It is at this stage that wealth becomes a criteria in admissions: with funding scarce, and proof of being able to pay a requirement of admission, students from ordinary backgrounds who would otherwise be able to attend are excluded.

    The international contingent among Oxbridge PhDs are bright and competent – but are they really more deserving than bright Brits from poor and middle-class backgrounds?

    The British contingent at postgraduate level at Oxbridge is actually more demographically representative than at undergraduate level, with brilliant students from ordinary backgrounds who might never have thought to apply at 18, who then excelled at university elsewhere and were encouraged to do postgraduate study at Oxbridge. But they are numerically overwhelmed by wealthy international students.

    Given the media and political focus on Oxbridge undergraduate admissions, it is puzzling that this doesn’t receive more attention, either in the press or on social media. One explanation could be that since relatively few people go on to postgraduate study – and especially few at Oxford or Cambridge – it isn’t seen as a pertinent issue in the same way as undergraduate admissions, given that half of school leavers go to university.

    But another reason might be the ‘international’ element: if two-thirds of Oxbridge postgrads were British public school alumni, there would be an outcry – but there is an assumption that the alumni of the finest schools in Europe, the United States and East Asia making up two-thirds of the postgraduate body must be a good thing. There is a section of the Left which sees ‘non-British’ as ‘under-privileged’, even if they are the most privileged people in the world.

    This school of thought sees the son of the King of Lesotho and the daughter of an Indian telecoms magnate as essentially the same as a black graduate from Peckham or a Asian applicant from Manningham, and therefore it is as desirable to have the former represented at Oxbridge as the latter.

    Certainly this situation will not change any time soon, given the difficultly of acquiring postgraduate funding, the lack of money in higher education, and the reluctance of the government to intervene. But elite universities could be a little less boastful of the numbers of their international postgraduates, given the privileged backgrounds from which so many of them hail.

    David Swift is the author of A Left for Itself. You can follow him on Twitter here