2000: The year of Laura Spence
In 2000, any hopes of a quiet start to the new millennium were dashed by a story so controversial it has its own Wikipedia page. ‘The Laura Spence Affair’ is the plight of one clever but unlucky girl from a North East state school. Spence applied for medicine at Magdalen, but despite perfect qualifications, was not offered a place because – according to the college – other candidates (of whom there were 22 for 5 positions) had equally good qualifications and performed better during the interview process. Gordon Brown was the first to lambast Oxford with accusations of elitism, calling Spence’s rejection an ‘absolute scandal’ and suggesting that she had been discriminated against by ‘an old establishment interview system’ which couldn’t possibly give Geordie comp students a fair chance. Quick to respond were Oxford’s dons, calling Brown “a hypocrite and a bully” and accusing him of “talking out of his backside”. Steady on chaps! Still, the debate forced us to confront some uncomfortable truths. Was it fair that only 7 per cent of pupils attend private schools but fee-paying students make up almost half of Oxbridge population? Laura Spence, incidentally, later went to Harvard. She did not study medicine.
2001: The year with three racial discrimination claims
2001 put Oxford University in the hot seat when it found itself embroiled in three court cases involving claims of racial discrimination. Chinasa Anya, a postdoctoral research assistant, claimed he was the victim of racial discrimination when he was denied a new post in favour of a white candidate in 1996. Ali Erdem, a Turkish postgraduate student, said the University had behaved inappropriately when it charged him with misconduct and dropped him from his banking law course. Nadeem Ahmed, a MPhil student studying medieval Arabic, accused the University of institutional racism after he alleged he was made to sit “flawed” exams which resulted in him being unfairly dismissed from the University’s Oriental Institute. To top it off, Mr Ahmed was subject to a racist email campaign by two not so bright history students. The emails told him that Asians should not be at university but “working in McDonald’s or on a building site” and asked “Why don’t you do a course in bricklaying?” Other emails made vulgar references to his wife and mother and contained pornographic photographs.
2002: The year of cash for places.
2002 Oxford’s attempts to rid itself of its pervasive elitist image were jeopardised in 2002 when an undercover journalist for The Times exposed the fact that Pembroke college was willing to offer students places in return for cash donations. The fictional banker, who worked in the US, was told by senior staff at Pembroke college they could create an extra place on a law degree course for his son. In the secretly taped interview, the Reverend John Platt, a senior fellow at the college, revealed that similar deals had been struck in the past. He said Pembroke needed the money because it was “poor as shit”. A year earlier, Booker prize judge Professor Valentine Cunningham of Corpus Christi had claimed that places across the university could be “bought” by wealthy families for their offspring, though the claims were widely refuted by other academics at the time.
2003: The Top-Up fee year
2003 was all about tuition fees, tuition fees, tuition fees. When will we hear the end of them? Students were up in arms in 2003 when Labour introduced top up fees, after declaring it would do no such thing. The cap on tuition fees was raised from £1000 to £3000. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. This came from a prime minister who stated in 1997, “Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education”. Since 2003, there has been no going back, with even higher figures suggested including £10,000. In 2009, OUSU President Stephen Baskerville and his delegates made headlines when they successfully lobbied two Oxford MPs in Parliament who signed a pledge to vote against the raising of tuition fees. Oxford students rallied outside the Palace of Westminster alongside National Union of Students protestors to campaign for the government to listen to students on the funding of Higher Education
2004: The year when Bullingdon got in trouble
In 2004, Oxford’s merry band of blue-jacketed blue-bloods, The Bullingdon Club, hit the headlines when members were fined £80 for smashing seventeen bottles of wine, every piece of crockery and a window at the 15th Century White Hart pub in Fyfield, near Oxford. Few could predict at the time that such stories would soon become a major political issue, with the ascension of young, hip, Dave Cameron and his somewhat gormless sidekick George to the ranks of Conservative Leader and Shadow Chancellor respectively. Both were members of the notorious drining club; both, along with buffoonish Boris, were clearly visible in leaked photographs, looking odious in their £3000 tail-coats. Since then, the spectre of drunken expensive revelries – most of which they probably can’t remember – has proven impossible to escape for the Tory trio. Class is back on the political agenda, and many predict a particularly gruesome and personal election due, in no small part, to the Bullingdon legacy.
2005: The SPEAK year
2005 relit the heated topic of animal rights when Oxford resumed construction work of its controversial £20m animal testing laboratory. The University had been forced to suspend the project in July 2004 due to the sustained campaign of protest of animal rights groups. Several building contractors pulled out during the years claiming their staff had been victims of intimidation and threats. However, work on the lab was finally completed in 2008. SPEAK, the animal rights protest group, has persistently fought against the construction of the lab and in 2008 their spokesman, Mel Broughton, was put on trial in connection with arson attacks to the University property in 2006 and 2007.
2006: The year St Hilda’s went mixed
In 2006 St. Hilda’s, the final single-sex college in Oxford (we don’t count the creepy PPHs, many of which are still all male) finally opened its doors to male students. Dons voted narrowly for the change, hoping it would attract talented applicants deterred by the single-sex environment. Money was a factor in the decision too, since abandoning single-sex status could boost the college’s shaky financial position and help plug a £400,000 budget deficit by bringing in world-class lecturers. Some students, though, were not so thrilled at the prospect, with one bemoaning that she could no longer get away with coming to breakfast in a “lacy nightie and skimpy dressing down”. Male students from other colleges, however, were reportedly delighted, since it meant that years of wall-climbing, fence jumping, and embarrassing fire-alarm situations had come to an end.
2007: The year of the Union scandals
2007 was the Year of the Union Scandals (isn’t every year really?). In November, the Union hit national headlines when President Luke Tryl decided to invite Nick Griffin, the BNP leader and David Irving, the controversial historian and Holocaust denier to attend a debate on free speech. Hundreds of students protested outside the Union with Griffin branding them as a “mob which would kill”. The Union wasn’t so lucky in 2001 when the President, Amy Harland, was forced to cancel her invitation to Irving after mounted pressure from students and the public. Internal politics wrecked the Union in 2007 with a bitter battle between the presidential candidates. The newly elected President, Krishna Omkar, was forced to resign after his defeated opponent, Charlotte Fischer, accused him of electoral malpractice. She didn’t last long though, walking out of the contest after claiming to have received lewd texts from Union officers asking: “Fancy a f***?” Oh dear.
2008: The year of scandals and shocks
2008 held many juicy stories; not least the sneaky Proctors who used Facebook pictures of post-exam ‘trashing’ as evidence to tot up a £10,000 jackpot of fines, more than five times last year’s figures. Needless to say, students weren’t too pleased to know Proctors were just a friend click away. Naughty Oxide radio station was forced to close after a Cherwell investigation revealed that it had been operating as a pirate station for the last two years.
2009: The year of the inappropriate joke
And what of last year’s offerings? Here at Cherwell, we’ve come to dub 2009 the Year of the Inappropriate Joke, for the number of scandals that arose out of démodé humour, misinformed satire, or just plain crassness. The “Bring-a-fit-Jew” debacle of late 2008 set the bar admirably high for tastelessness, but 2009 made an Olympian effort to outdo it. We had almost ubiquitous blackings-up, that joke during the hustings of “Disgraced former OUCA” (as they like to be known), and indeed a worthy performance from Cherwell in the form of Lecher, a gossip rag full of desperately unfunny in-jokes that led to the resignation of the then editors. When it came to insulting ethnic minorities, implicating people in paedophilia or mocking the holocaust, this truly was a golden year.