Sarah Kent examines the biases and stereotypes facing Oxford students.
University is a liberating place: suddenly the overbearing parents are gone, the controlling girlfriend is miles away, and there’s no one who knows that embarrassing story about what happened at that party. It’s little wonder that many people see university as a chance to reinvent themselves. Stepping out of his mummy’s car on the first day of fresher’s week is not Craig Potts, famed at school for his greasy hair and unpleasant odour, but Craig Potts, super stud, who over the summer has had a haircut and bought some Lynx. OK, perhaps he still has some way to go, but the point is clear: university is a time to grow from the caterpillar you were into the butterfly you always knew you could be.
University is certainly a liberating place. But what everyone seems to forget is that university comes with its own baggage, in Oxford’s case some 800 years worth. While it is perfectly possible to reinvent oneself, and shed the personal embarrassments and mistakes of the past, you cannot change the attitudes and preconceptions surrounding an institution with which you are affiliated. Much like family, where you go to university will always be there, lurking in the background, ready to embarrass you the minute you hear the words, "Oh, you didn’t go there did you? My son simply loved it there, you two must meet."
Of course, having to spend painful and silent minutes with the offspring of family friends is hardly an experience unique to Oxford students. Even if you did not have the tenuous common link of sharing an educational institution, it is likely you would have been made to sit in the corner having a "delightful time" anyway. And of course, you are just as likely to have to write Cousin Bob’s personal statement because you go to Leeds, and he’s simply dying to go there, as you are if you go to Oxford. Yet Oxford has its own special identity and it comes with a unique ability to create truly uncomfortable situations the minute you admit to studying there.
Of course there is no denying Oxford’s credentials as an intellectual heavyweight. As Wikipedia helpfully points out, Oxford has been placed best in the United Kingdom for the 6th consecutive year in The Times Good University Guide (2003-2008). Quite how it has been ranked for a year which has not yet occurred is a mystery. Still, it’s certainly performed crackingly.
Indeed, there’s a lot to be said for the argument, backed by the venerable statistics supplied by The Times, that being associated with Oxford can be very very beneficial. It will help you get a job, make contacts, and generally sustain a nicely bourgeois level of existence. This is proved by the illustrious list of names to be found attendant at our careers fairs. Companies which consider only a handful of universities in the country worthy of a recruiting visit invariably place Oxford on the top of their lists. What could be better? All because of Oxford you walk out of university cherry-picked for a job, having put in hardly any effort yourself.
Or at least that’s what you’re meant to think. In this age of positive discrimination, the name Oxford seems to be losing its illustrious ring. Attending a recent talk at a top-tier London law firm I was assured that Oxford and Cambridge were afforded no special treatment, and students from these universities were certainly not at an advantage when it came to getting a job. I was inclined not to be unduly worried by these words, since this very firm had already employed me, and indeed the majority of those working with me were from Oxbridge. Still, HR seemed to find this strange, and a little off-putting. This is the discrimination that 800 years of privilege has earned us.
It is beyond an exaggeration to say that going to Oxford will damage your career prospects, but we no longer live in the age of old boys’ clubs and nepotism, or at least not openly, and it is, probably, not a guarantee of employment.
But if, in the search for a job, graduates are happy to scrawl the word Oxford all over their CVs, it is a different matter when it comes to interactions with peers and equals. Making friends is a tricky and awkward process at the best of times, and it can be made even more tricky and awkward if you are having to waste time challenging silly preconceptions. This is where Oxford’s 800 years of history really starts to make itself felt. A lot of preconceptions can be formed in that time, and many of them are not particularly positive. Even if they are, they’re not going to help you make friends. Take, for example, the people who you worked with in Tesco’s over the summer. One goes to Luton University, another reads media studies; this is not a snobbish social commentary on those who work at Tesco’s (remember one of you goes to Oxford). In this reasonably typical situation, the conversation in which you discuss what you do and where you go is going to be inescapably awkward. The response will either be, "Wow, you must be so clever," or, "I hear everyone who goes there is a posh twat." Both tend to kill conversation.
Of course you could always lie; I’m often tempted to just say Manchester and leave it at that, but then you always risk getting caught out, which tends to prove even more awkward. In these situations it doesn’t matter how much you’ve changed your hair and started to use deoderant you return to your inner Craig Potts, the generally abused outcast.
Even worse is the situation in which you’re sitting with old friends who have never quite gotten over not getting into Oxford. It’s not your fault, you have done nothing wrong, but it’ll always cause tension in the friendship. It’s even worse when the person with a chip on their shoulder is a stranger. The conversation invariably turns into a competition in which they continually try to put you down in order to prove that even though they didn’t go to some fancy-schmancy university, they’re every bit as clever as you. After being forced to prove you can name the capitals of half the countries in the world, this tends to get old.
Of course it’s not fair that something of which you should be proud can be such a stigma. Whatever its faults, whatever the flaws in its reputation, there it no denying that getting into Oxford is an achievement. And yet students here are very aware of the stigma that can go with attending such an institution. Indeed, it is ironic that many of them consider it to be true and even promote it themselves; it’s not uncommon to hear an Oxford student complain that everyone at the university is unbearably posh, when what they really mean is different. It is a shame that not only does prejudice exist within the University, but that it radiates out to reflect not just upon individuals, but everyone who studies there.It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that university is one of the most important times of your life. Even if it doesn’t actually shape the way you yourself are, which it invariably will, it will shape the way you are perceived for the rest of your life. Ultimately what must be remembered is that, however hard you try not to tick the boxes, it will always remain an inescapable truth that everyone starts life as a caterpillar.