Monday, July 18, 2005

How Times Have Changed

I've just been watching BBC2's obituary documentary for Ted Heath. It's remarkable how much times have changed. For example, they remarked about Heath having his first trip on an aeroplane when he was 13; whilst the first time flying may nowadays be of personal significance, I doubt it would be so remarkable a detail in a biography of Tony Blair, for example, and certainly not by the time my generation grows up. The world is a better place in so many ways.

One thing that really shone through, however, was how much Oxford had changed, and how much for the better. One of Heath's contemporaries, very clearly a product of the landed class, mentioned how Heath always spoke with a Cockney accent, "which he still does". The interview evidence with Heath was entirely to the contrary. Talking to a friend who went to Cambridge some years ago, but more recently than Heath, he admitted too that going from a grammar school to what was basically an extension of a private school was a huge shock.

Oxford is different now. Outside of a small minority of bigots - and, sadly you are going to get them anywhere - it's tolerant, and there isn't any of the anti-state school discrimination you hear so much about. Sure, I know some people from public schools who probably weren't up to scratch; I know people from state schools who weren't up to scratch either. With an imperfect admissions system made worse by the complete cock-ups Labour insist on making to our A-Level system, these things are bound to happen.

The rantings of Clarke and co about Oxford needing to shed its "Brideshead" image are total cobblers. They're formed far more out of an old-fashioned class war jealousy than any grounding in fact. Yet they are doing untold damage to the reputation of our top universities. Oxford and Cambridge aren't just the best universities in Britain, they are the best universities in the world. And whilst there may have been problems of class bias, snobbery and inequality in the past, they aren't there now. The tutors have no interest in preserving a class interest; they want the finest minds of their generation to be working hard and with them.The world has changed for the better. Long may it continue that way.