Eton College Chapel is almost indistinguishable from an Oxbridge collegewiki-images/ Francis Aidan Gasquet/Public domains

This week, I learned that Oxford Brookes University was shutting its music and maths departments due to “increased financial challenges”. I was in College at the time, standing just outside my Grade I-listed, heavily-subsidised room. Most third year students in the UK would be battling slumlords in the private sector, but this is Cambridge so the normal rules don’t apply. I was still wearing my gown as I read the news, having just returned from pillaging Magdalene’s stock of cheese and port at yet another college-funded shindig.

I didn’t give much thought to the discrepancy between Cambridge and Brookes at the time. I only made the connection the next day while reading the New Statesman’s coverage of the ongoing debate over private schools’ charitable status.

The piece saw the author visiting a number of private school open days, which prompted the reflection: “It was hard, sitting in the wood-panelled halls with their oil paintings of alumni and state-of-the-art sound systems, to think of the primary school fighting closure near me in east London”.

Wood-panelled halls and oil paintings of alumni – sound familiar?

I had better confess my agenda now. I went to a private school (sorry), and I am a member of the Conservative Party (really, really sorry). I think that private schools should be VAT-exempt largely because they represent a combination of aspiration and tradition which is catnip to anyone sheltering conservative sympathies.

“I went to a private school (sorry)”

I had, however, given up hope of convincing anyone outside of Surrey to agree with me on this. The optics of Keir Starmer taking money from private schools, with their air-conditioned shooting ranges and gold-plated hockey pitches, and giving it to state schools made of crumbling concrete are just too good. The social justice of it all almost moves even my dead, Thatcherite heart.

The issue for Oxbridge students is that once you accept the principle that charitable status should be wielded by the government as a tool to reduce inequality, things start to look a bit dicey for our colleges. In Cambridge, Peterhouse, with its 477 students, has an endowment worth more than double that of Durham University – with 22,000 enrolled. In Oxford, New College keeps a Swiss chalet for student use, while down the road Brookes is sacking good maths and music professors because it can’t afford to keep paying them.

Oxford and Cambridge get away with this because they are meritocratic. This is a lot less reasonable than it sounds. Durham is also a good, academically selective university – but none of its colleges have swimming pools. Are we to accept that Oxbridge rejects are literally worth less than their peers who did better at interview?

Oxbridge colleges spend endowments cumulatively worth billions of pounds on subsidising formal dinners and European holidays for their students, and never have their charitable status questioned. At least when private schools help the most fortunate, they make them pay for the privilege. Oxbridge students get a better, more expensive education than their peers, not because it’s a good investment, but because our higher education sector is riven by obscene inequality.

Needless to say, I am not proposing that Starmer come for Oxbridge. Quite the opposite. I’ve dragged Cambridge into this to point out that private schools aren’t the only charities which pursue a debatable good in an arguably perverse way.

The premise behind private schools is that giving students a better education is always a public good, because even if only a minority benefit directly, others will benefit indirectly. It is essentially educational trickle-down economics.

“Charities exist to serve the public good, and both private schools and Oxbridge colleges can reasonably argue that they do.”

This might well make your blood boil. Fair enough. But is it so different from Oxbridge colleges, which operate on the principle that if you take the brightest students in any given year, coddle them domestically, and push them academically, then you will produce an intellectual elite who can go forth and enrich the nation through their great deeds? It’s trickle-down all over again, only with a veneer of meritocracy.

At this point, you might be thinking, “alright, collectivise Trinity”. The problem is that neither of these principles are inherently unsound. Charities exist to serve the public good, and both private schools and Oxbridge colleges can reasonably argue that they do. That this comes at the cost of rather a lot of elitism is neither here nor there.


Mountain View

Does Lucy Cavendish’s egalitarian intake conceal an uglier truth?

The question thus becomes how strictly you want to police what counts as a public good? You might be happy for Starmer to smite Eton and King’s, but would you feel the same if Sunak came for those pesky refugee charities which keep blocking the Rwanda policy? Charities are funded by individuals trying to advance causes they believe in. Such causes need not be popular – if they did then polls suggest we’d be shutting down the Vegan Society and the LGBT Foundation.

Ultimately, in a free country, the government shouldn’t decide what counts as a good cause. This is why Keir Starmer has decided not to strip private schools of their charitable status after all – though he still wants them to pay VAT. He would do better to just leave them alone. Denying privileges to private schools alone, simply because you don’t like what they stand for, sets a grim precedent indeed.