Another beautiful day in Oxford, with the sun playing across the old stone buildings and grass quads. And the students, well dressed, attractive, and carrying scholarly looking books are a fitting dressing for this academic idyll. Everything is good; everything is lovely.
Although, of course, it turns out we’re all terrible.
I’ve long supposed that the crude, and often malicious, side of student politics was nothing more than a fun introduction to the real world, where the violence of the apex predator is altogether more destructive and terrifying. 19-year-old kids dressing up in black tie, screwing one another over for the smallest conceivable amount of power, and generally floating around town with a degree of dick-in-hand seriousness that would put the European Parliament to shame, were all just harmless games.
But, over the last couple of weeks, Oxford appears to be engaging in a potent anti-PR campaign. And, for once, we can’t blame the Lib Dems or the Vice-Chancellor. This is self-inflicted, Mutually Assured Access Destruction.
The realisation that the ballot had been rigged in the NUS referendum should have been deeply shocking. More surprising than anything is the amount the perpetrator must have cared about the result of the election. It’s the NUS – it’s defined by apathy. But because this is only the latest in a string of scandals this term, the news has been greeted with weak grunts of despair, rather than gaping, floorbound jaws.
The malpractice was recognised and remedied swiftly, with credit to the campaign heads, Tom Rutland and Jack Matthews, for their integrity with regards to the process. But the damage had been done.
Last week national newspapers were reporting that England’s oldest university had voted to pull out of the NUS; a further Conservatisation of the institution, in the wake of the recent scandals at the Union. The NUS result felt, to most of us, like Oxford had confirmed its isolationist and exceptionalist tendencies for all the world to see.
So, in that sense, it’s a massive relief to discover that the ‘Yes’ campaign actually won the referendum quite comfortably. In a battle of campaigns, which basically became ‘Unbearably Cringeworthy Yes’ vs. ‘Sinister Man in Mask No’, the triumph belonged to the liberation groups whose argument for membership had cut to the heart of the issue.
Sadly, the more damaging result of the referendum is the realisation that Oxford is the worst university in the country. 99% of its students are perfectly good, honest people, but the 1% who aren’t are so morally bankrupt and ambitious that they have become the standard-bearers for the university.
As a child, I tried to convince myself that there was some sort of karmic response to any negative action I performed. If I left the lights on in my bedroom, I would tell myself that a cat in Lithuania had died because of my negligence. It was kind of fucked up. But to reduce the current circumstances to the same karmic chain, we might suggest that every time we, as a community, do some sort of reprehensible Bullingdon-bullshit, we slam shut access doors across the country.
The key thing that people should take from these events is that Oxford is willing to scrutinise itself. It’s not the fault of the student press (or Facebook discussion groups, such is the tide of change…) for reporting them; in fact, that’s the most admirable part of this (with certain exceptions). We are willing to hold our institutions to account, and whilst that means that our sad failures come to light, it also allows us to retain some ethical dignity. Perhaps the problem is less that we’re all terrible children, and more that other universities aren’t digging deep enough into their own shortcomings.
We voted to stay part of the NUS, we rectified our electoral malpractice within a few days, and we reported the issue clearly and competently. During our inevitable period of disgrace, these are all things that we should keep sight of. The image of the Dreaming Spires as a thin veneer, which hides a deep rot, is a tempting one, but in the past few weeks, the mould has risen to the surface. All that remains is the hope that, beneath the surface, there’s something more substantial.