There are things university larnin’ don’t teach you

Gosh. The richest kids from the poshest schools end up at 'better' universities, says a watchdog. (We need a watchdog to point this out?) The Office for Fair Access has a bunch of reasons to explain why this could be, and I'd like to add my own. There's a certain element of self-perpetuation to the elite university thing. I can't believe I've never told you my Cambridge Interview Story…

It is: December 1995. I am: 17, and have been persuaded that my mock A Level results mean I should apply for Oxbridge. My school is almost peeing itself with excitement – as far as anyone's aware, Morley High School had only ever had one former pupil go to either (Cambridge). Oh, the stories they could generate in the local papers if I got in! They'd finally be able to stop mentioning my GCSE results on any spurious excuse (can I just point out: I was never asked whether I minded my grades being used for free publicity, and no amount of bitching to my form tutor seemed to stop it). Anyway. I applied (to Clare). I got an interview. The History one seemed to go well. Then came the College interview.

It was with a guy aged about 50, white hair, bow tie, tweed. When I walked in he had his back to me, staring out the window. He spent the first five minutes of the interview doing the same. He could not have been less interested in me or anything I was saying. And unfortunately I don't think I was saying a great deal, because the questions he was vaguely tossing my way were the kind of thing I had no idea how to answer. I can't remember them now because I didn't understand them then. Issues of philosophy and metaphysics, morality and politics, the kind of thing I'd never even heard of. The kind of thing any comprehensive educated kid would never have heard of. When he finally deigned to sit down he looked at me with more contempt than I had ever encountered in my short life. Possibly he treated everyone like this. Possibly it was a standard interview and I'm just thick. Possibly he was just a huge misogynist. But while I was in the room, I got the distinct impression he was thinking 'you jumped up little peasant. You think you have what it takes to come to Cambridge? Prove it'. I would have put money down that if I'd had a public school on my application, rather than a nothing comp in the suburban North, I would have had an easier ride.

That's not to say I would have been offered a place. In the event, I got pooled – but no further. (I often wonder if that meant History was willing to have me, but that the College guy vetoed me.) But walking out of that stuffy little attic room I knew I wasn't going to Cambridge – and I was pleased. Why would I put myself in a place that employed someone willing to treat people like that? And maybe he was right: about 18 months later I found myself talking to a friend who'd ended up reading History at Pembroke (completely random connection; he'd gone to one of the country's top grammar schools, naturally) and his workload was like nothing my pre-18 education had prepared me for. There's every chance I would have quickly drowned, dropped out and ended up at Nottingham anyway. But what pisses me off is the nagging thought that I was written off before I even walked in the room.

(I do want to point out, however: I genuinely think not getting into Cambridge was the best thing that ever happened to me. If I can, once more, quote Alan Bennett: "I was confusing learning with the smell of cold stone. If I had gone I'd probably never have worked out the difference". Good for other people, not for me. And furthermore, compared to URN, Cambridge University Radio – now, where's that text from Jamie, dissing something else entirely… ah, yes – "sucked a big gonad". (Brilliant.))


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