Tuesday, 23 October 2007

In Defence of Oxbridge (part I)

Oxford and Cambridge are no British ENA
I have just started a degree at Oxford University and so it feels appropriate to blog a bit about the institution where I now live and learn. Don't worry, these posts are not going to be about JCRs, unions and fellowships but instead about the political questions raised by the existence of 'elite' universities. In another, post I will look at the often discussed issue of the small number of state school pupils being admitted to Oxbridge but for now I would like to examine the other side of the universities. We hear a lot about people trying to get in but very little about what people do after they leave. This is surprising when you consider how much influence these graduates wield. Since 1920 all bar three prime ministers have been Oxbridge educated. So are a huge number of CEOs, civic leaders and senior civil servants.

All this brings to mind the École nationale d'administration in France; which has educated seven of the last nine prime ministers, two of the last four presidents and the vast bulk of ‘category A’ civil servants. The ENA is one of the most criticised institutions in France. It is seen as the creator of a clique of graduates who monopolise positions of power within the French state. Having a ruling class, largely educated in one place has produced a situation where the people who govern France share the same set of basic assumptions about what government does, which has in turn produced a stifling corporatist consensus. It is only with the rise of Nicholas Sarkozy and a government largely devoid of’ Enarques’ for real change to come about. So it is perhaps unsurprising that there has been serious discussion of the ENA being closed. This is something, I would whole heartedly endorse.

Which begs the question if the ENA then why not Oxbridge? Put simply the answer that is that Oxford and Cambridge are very different institutions operating in a very different context and as a result have a far more benign influence. They are larger, more academic and do not hold the ENAs monopoly over access to the civil service. As a consequence they do not produce the kind of governmental group think and systematic discrimination that the ENA does.

At any time there are around thirty-five thousand students studying at Oxford and Cambridge, by contrast only a hundred people graduate from the ENA every year. In this case size matters. The ENAs size means that it is entirely possible for a student to know everyone in their year in a way that is totally impossible at Oxford or Cambridge. So, while there are undoubtedly cliques of Oxford graduates, the universities graduates cannot form a single clique a la the Enarques. The size of the universities also means there is far more diversity within them since they are made up of numerous colleges and faculties each with a different culture and worldview.

The kind of education that the Oxbridge universities provide is also very different from what students at the ENA receive. While Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the Middle Ages to educate monks, the ENA came in to being in 1945 to train civil servants. The impact of this is that students at Oxford get an academic education that is meant to equip them to grapple with intellectual questions. The ENA, by contrast, is much more vocationally orientated aiming to tell its students how to make the trains run on time. It is telling that the ENA does not describe itself as a University but as a school of administration. What this means in practice is that when Oxbridge graduates end up running a government department they will not approach it the way that there Alma Matter taught them to but in a way that is as individual as they are.

It needs to be born in mind that while it is possible to ascribe to ENA a particular political outlook, a sort of soft corporatism, it is impossible to do so for Oxbridge graduates. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Tony Benn all went to Oxford and can hardly be described as sharing a single world view.

Finally, we need to bear in mind that there is a big difference in what life is actually like for graduates of the different institutions. ENA alumni enjoy a quasi-legal monopoly over ‘category A’ placements in the civil service. While many civil service fast streamers are Oxbridge graduates, it would not be unusual to find people from other universities in the program as well. Naturally around 75% of ENA graduates go into the French civil service. The situation at Oxford and Cambridge is very different with graduates going into a vast range of different professions and do not monopolising any single one.

Oxford and Cambridge make a positive contribution to public life in a way that sadly the ENA simply doesn’t. Oxbridge has a long history and with luck will survive long into the future. The ENA has a much shorter history that should not be allowed to get any longer.


Edis said...

The ENA is however only one of the 'Grandes Ecoles'. Others include the 'Ecole Polytechnique' and the various ramifications of the 'Ecole Normale Superior'.

There are centuries of tradition in this fostering of a technical and administrative elite which stays in control despite what the political tides bring. It allows France to be governed in a certain top-down way with support for long-term projects. Part of the European problem is that France (under no matter what government) tries to create an Europe that can be controlled in the way France is, preferably by French-Trained experts.

Tristan said...

We seem to have a hangup about elite Universities.

We seem to be ashamed of academic excellence.

This is a great shame, and reflects badly upon our culture.

And its not as if Oxbridge don't bend over backwards to get diverse students, the problem is the state education system is failing too many people at a lower level.

Also, Oxbridge are no longer always the top for some subjects. Many consider Warwick Mathematics to be better than Oxford, and Imperial is up with both on Engineering.

(Declaration of interest: I went to Cambridge, which is obviously the best ;) )