For literally centuries, the allure of Oxbridge’s academic prestige has bewitched the brightest and most ambitious of students. It’s the place that precocious young children dream about attending, and teenagers willingly jump through intellectual hoops to attend. But in 2018, when diversity is key and more British universities exist than ever before, does Oxbridge find its prestige in decline?
If you simply look at applications, the answer is very much no; more people applied for Oxford and Cambridge universities for the 2017/18 academic year than ever before. But behind this lies contradictory data, focused less on expectations before applying and more on the experience as a student and graduate of Oxbridge. The impact of Oxbridge’s intense academic culture upon mental health has come under fire, as students begin to question if the shiny Oxbridge label is worth three years of excruciating studying. Last year, Oxford University Students’ Union released research stating that 43% of their students felt attending Oxford had had a negative impact upon their mental health (only 12% felt the university had positively affected their mental health). The rise in student mental health problems is widespread, but Oxbridge culture seems to make the problem more acute.
The politics of diversity and inclusion have also tarnished Oxbridge’s reputation. Students are no longer happy to play along with the lack of diversity at Oxbridge, where white British Oxford applicants are twice as likely to gain a place as their black peers and six of Cambridge’s colleges accepted under ten BAME students between 2012 and 2016. News coverage of Oxford’s #RhodesMustFall decolonisation movement has also highlighted just how entrenched racism is in elite universities – though it has also made very clear that student activists are determined to see this change. For those from lower class backgrounds, who are now increasingly likely to study at university, the traditions and upper class domination of the Oxbridge world can seem unnecessarily off-putting. Why bother dealing with robes, dinners in grand halls, and making friends with people who don’t know what free school meals are, when other top universities offer less intimidating alternatives?
It’s not just Oxbridge’s culture which can seem outdated – prospects for its graduates, whilst still far higher than most universities, are beginning to slip in comparison to alternative top universities. After graduation, recent research showed graduates from Imperial College London earned a salary of £37,931 a year after graduation, £5000 more than the average Oxbridge graduate at the same time. Of course, Imperial’s specialism in STEM subjects has more than a little to do with this, but with King’s College London also beating Oxbridge – and LSE, Edinburgh and UCL also recording similarly high graduate earnings – the financial edge of attending Oxbridge may be diminishing too.
Oxbridge is still a great seat of learning, but with so much choice now out there for students, many may find the drain on mental health, the elite and non-diverse culture, and slipping graduate earnings off-putting. There’s certainly connections, opportunities, and boasting potential that only Oxbridge can offer - but other high level universities are offering excellent learning opportunities without the Oxbridge catch.