Here at Cambridge, people sometimes talk about privilege and about how certain families and certain social networks tend to be more successful at reaching the university. Despite massive University efforts to provide equal opportunity and even provide extra opportunities for people from low-income areas, certain tendencies persist.
These issues are very complex, and some kinds of elitism are very good for an institution which is attempting to employ the best academics, provide the best resources, and produce the best graduates. On a simpler level, however, these social networks are very good for potential applicants. During the past year, I had the privilege of meeting the family of another student. We had a wonderful, wide-ranging conversation. Some time later, I received the following email about homework from the younger sibling of this student, who is thinking of Oxbridge applications soon:
(older readers should note that the quality of youths' online grammar and spelling does not necessarily reflect their skill with the English language. This example is very typical of current style, and based on our brief meeting, I would not be surprised if this student did very well at Oxbridge.)
During our prior discussion, I had explained to this student some very basic ecological issues more clearly than the teacher had-- something which is more likely to occur for those who know people from Oxbridge, or from any university. Now the student was asking for sources.
I could have sent sources, and it would not have been plagiarism. But instead, I sent some names and terms along with the suggestion that the student find the relevant sources. I don't know if the student will put them to good use or not. But making it harder for this student actually provides a greater opportunity to hone research techniques, skills which will provide a great advantage during secondary school and in Oxbridge applications.
This, I suspect, is a major part of privilege, and to be honest, if it means that students learn more, I have only a few specific reservations about it, but those have more to do with how to balance a university's impact on society in relation to the economic and regional diversity of its applicant pool and the quality of its production.