Legitimating status: perceptions of meritocracy and inequality among undergraduates at an elite British university



Given the frequent critiques of elite universities for admitting low numbers of state school graduates and, more recently, British Afro-Caribbean students, how do students attending those universities make meaning of the admissions process? Through an analysis of 46 one-on-one in-depth interviews with undergraduates attending Oxford University, we show that students believe in the fairness of the admissions process, while lamenting the lack of opportunities for educational advancement faced by some disadvantaged youth in British society. Despite their understanding that many British youth do not have access to educational experiences that make Oxbridge an attainable goal, most students do not support changes to make access more equitable across class or racial/ethnic lines. This perspective, which legitimates the status students gain through matriculation at an elite university, supports the maintenance of unequal access to an Oxford education despite the advantages that education is known to confer to graduates. The findings demonstrate elites acknowledging the disadvantages of particular groups in society without acknowledging their own advantages in the same system. They do so by recognizing two elements of merit: (1) intelligence, which most students assumed led to their own admission; and (2) cultivation of that intelligence, which requires elite secondary schools and which most students see as disadvantaging particular groups in society. In the paper we highlight differences in meaning-making between graduates of grammar, comprehensive and private schools.