Debate: are we in Oxford University’s golden age?

Yes – Patrick Mulholland

In The Canterbury Tales we are told of a clerk, one I whose ‘overeste’ – that is, his overcoat – hung ragged from his shoulders, ‘ful thredbare’. A student of ‘logyk,’ he had ‘but litel gold in cofre’ and all that was his was borrowed, ‘of his freendes hente’. Destitute, alone, barely scraping by – his education had conferred little upon him beyond a love of books, and the means to earn his poverty. Fast forward a couple of centuries, and we find ourselves a disgruntled Scotsman, an alumnus of that very same university, with this to say of the place: “…the greater part of the public professors have, for these many years, given up altogether even the pretence of teaching.”

Perhaps we should wait another while; maybe a century or two, give or take? The town “is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead,” writes an esteemed Nobel Laureate, “I don’t think I should stay there another year, in any case; but I should not mind being in London, to work at the British Museum.” Yes, that’s right: lock me in a dark, dingy room with thousands of tablets of cuneiform: paradise (that’s what you get for applying to Merton, I suppose). What do these figures, one fictional and the other two historical (Adam Smith and T.S. Eliot), have in common? A university. Which university? The University of Oxford – a haven of discontent.

Of course, it makes little sense to herald a Golden Age relative to what’s come before – just because something was worse then does not make it perfect now. And secondly, it’s nonsensical to speculate contemporaneously as to whether or not we are currently, at the cusp of this moment, living in such a time. Yet, there are four hallmarks, or criteria, considered to be the indicators of a Golden Age, ones that we can dig back into history in search of. They are: peace, harmony, stability and prosperity. For much of its history Oxford was wracked by conflict. From the hanging of two students in 1209 contributing to the establishment of Cambridge, to the Siege of Oxford during the English Civil War in 1644-1646, to World War I and World War II, violence and tragedy visited the City of Dreaming Spires. And, if the former seems silly, remote and inconsequential to a modern readership, surely the events of the twentieth century act as a harrowing reminder of the comfort of our times. Indeed, 14,792 members of the University served in World War I, resulting in 2,716 casualties, or roughly a fifth. Not only this, but by 1918 the active student population had plummeted to around 12 per cent. The significance of this cannot be forgotten, and nor should it be. We take our peace, our plenty and our liberality for granted. Think of the scores of universities that have fallen away as a result of war or conflict, or even the censorious regimes that police thought and drown out dissent. If, per chance, we scoff at the idea of Oxford life being interrupted by external factors, then that is symptomatic of our privilege.

Next on our list: prosperity. A statute, issued by the university in 1875, saw the first cohort of women gain admission to the institution. However, it was arguably not until the post-war era that things reached their fullest, most recognisable fruition. If we are to hypothesise a ‘Golden Age’ we must couch it between the various countercultural movements of the 1960s and the present day. For, in this instance, it is not the realisation of an ideal that demarcates  a watershed moment, but rather the change of course and trajectory that has brought us to this juncture. There will always be grievances, inequalities and dilemmas in need of redress. What is different now is that we have developed mechanisms and put programs in place to channel and voice dissatisfaction. Moreover, we have the correct mindset to respond appropriately and constructively to problems as they arise.

Related  We should stop the social media ‘pay-day witch-hunt’

No longer the playground for Waugh’s young aristocratic aesthetes and mischief-makers, 56.3 per cent of all accepted applicants to the 2014 undergraduate cycle hailed from state schools, myself included. And, at 34.8 per cent, the number of UK graduates is significantly lower than that of international students. So what does this tell us? Oxford has become, and continues to become, a much more diverse and inclusive environment, attracting talents from across the world. It has well and truly moulded itself into a global university, with a clear emphasis on ability and merit. At least, that is what it openly and earnestly strives for. Oxford’s recent record substantiates such an assessment: every year £5.6 million is spent on outreach work, in addition to a further £7 million on financial support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the form of bursaries and scholarships. Over three thousand information evenings and work- shops, covering 72 per cent of all UK schools with a sixth form, also go a long way to demythologising Oxford and placing achievability within the prospect of belief for many. That is, for many who would otherwise not think to apply.

It seems to me that while there is work to be done, the blueprint has been finalised and that is why, I suspect, future generations will reflect fondly.

 

No – Phillip Pope

I often get very bored reading the news. Particularly when I run into the Guardian education section, which talks about Oxbridge so much that it would have you believe that they are only two universities that exist in the western world. Such is its love-hate relationship with the universities that barely a month seems to ever pass without some new slant on the old ‘privileged and private school’ argument reappearing, inevitably written by one of the 47 per cent of newspaper columnists who went to Oxford or Cambridge. And let’s face it, certain swine-related stories have not been helping the University’s image of late.

Why the national newspapers are so interested in the topic is beyond me, but as the students, perhaps we should be the ones talking about it a bit more. The reason I say this is that, unlike some, I actually think that Oxford is a great place. And that is why it makes me sad to think of how inaccessible it really is to such a wide proportion of society. It is easy to forget about it whilst you’re here, but if we do, we risk missing out on the best chance anyone can have at changing the system.

We all know that ‘golden age’ is the phrase coined most frequently by those of a certain age and a certain propensity to reminisce, as they desperately try to describe what it was that made their youth so much better than yours. Whilst there is certainly little to be missed about Oxford’s past, to declare a golden age would be to suggest that it is not going to get any better. I sincerely hope that is not the case.

It never takes long when discussing this issue before someone brings up the stats: seven per cent of the population goes to private school, and yet they make up 44 per cent of students at Oxford. It doesn’t take a DPhil in statistical analysis to notice that it is an awfully worrying gap, which probably better fits the description of Palaeolithic Stone Age than a golden one. I don’t actually believe that the tutors are the ones perpetuating this problem by discriminating at interviews. Oxford has probably been trying harder than almost any- where else to change this, so then why does it keep on falling short?

Related  In defence of celebrity feminism

Looking at the current inequality in our national education system, it is hard to ignore the underlying disparity in the schools that are feeding higher education. And perhaps Oxford will never truly be able be able to thrive until that is changed. We have all heard the arguments about the lack of a well trodden path to Oxford, cultivation of wider interest in a subject, and preparation for interviews at many state schools that is restricting the students’ chances of getting into an interview based system. However, unless Mr Cameron happens to be reading Cherwell, perhaps it would be more useful for us to focus on the other major issue, one that we are all contributing to and so have the power to change.

It is hard to deny that, from the outside, Oxford is still commonly perceived as a closed and socially backward elite club. This is very hard to deny when the first thing you do when you arrive is march through the centre in a white bow tie, a gown and a frisbee hat to get spoken to in Latin. The myriad of traditions still provides the greatest obstacle to a progressive Oxford.

A huge part of the problem is that the majority of people that get into Oxford enjoy these rituals, because those that don’t are the ones who are put off applying. This, together with the power that a sense of entitlement to do ‘Oxford things’ once you get here can wield, is extremely dangerous in perpetuating the continued social gap between the rest of the country and the university. How out of touch with the rest the world have we become when we do not even think to question the common practice of balls charging well over £100 for one ticket. We try to justify these by saying that it is just ‘one of those things you have to do at Oxford’. But this is completely ignoring the fact that for many people, spending this amount of money on a night is simply impossible.

I find it worrying the extent to which we can be so blind to social issues when distracted by tradition and indulgence. One of the most ironically comical moments I have witnessed at Oxford was hearing news of the Wadham College ball. The self-proclaimed socialist college of the university is having a ball that costs £130 per ticket. If even the smothering socialists can’t even see the hypocrisy in our desire for social mobility but also blatant elitism, what hope have we got?

Sadly, all the things that could make this a golden age for Oxford – the amazing research, teaching and innovation inspiring the student population lucky enough to get the opportunity to experience it – will never be reported in the national press. And so the misguided perception of Oxford based on its most useless of traditions prevail.

Oxford remains condemned by misconceptions, which prevent it from accessing the wealth of talent in the people who would never even contemplate applying. It may sound drastic, but in our desire to conserve the past history and quirkiness of Oxford, we are supporting a very minor aspect of what makes it special, and perpetuating a much greater part of what holds it back. It is time to make a statement and rid the university of its pretension.