Debate: Does Oxford foster a sense of community?

Maxim Parr-Reid and Tilly Nevin debate whether Oxford University fosters a sense of community

Yes: Oxford colleges and societies do promote inclusivity, despite what many people expect

Maxim Parr-Reid

When I first considered Oxford, it was a byword for elitism in my mind. ‘Oxford’ to me was indicative of a superior class, and a lifestyle redolent of Brideshead Revisited. Oxford had always been socially remote (in my view at the time).

When I first encountered public schoolboys, I saw their futures as inevitably intertwined with Oxbridge and assumed, wrongly, that it was a toy-town world in which I saw no place for myself or others like me. Up until a year or so before I applied to Oxford, I had resigned myself to the idea that it was for someone else entirely.

I had managed to convince myself that Oxford wasn’t an open place, that it wasn’t a diverse community at all. I genuinely believed that Oxford was the preserve of a small group from a certain type of background. As baseless as these assumptions about Oxford were, I believed them.

My assumptions were unfounded, based largely on viewing Oxford through the lens of the media, and my own misconceived distortions of reality—an idea of a closed crucible that I had allowed to go without refutation for far too long. Part of the magic of Oxford is that it can be whatever we want it to be, but the problem I had with that is that it meant I constructed this world where people like me were airbrushed out and forgotten. That idea could not be further from the truth, as I would discover.

Oxford is an extremely communal place. Even eating in hall provides the opportunity to immerse oneself in a panoply of cultural experiences. I have come to know so many people from abroad: whether this means having breakfast with a Singaporean, or dinner with a Serbian. Being immersed in different cultures and different experience is all part of the shared experience of Oxford. My friends don’t all hail from the shire counties of England, but from Holland and as far away as Colombia in South America. Seldom very few universities allow for such a wide array of cultures to come together.

This coming together manifests itself chiefly in the range of subjects studied. Even my own course, History and Politics, I once believed was the preserve of private school students. I was wrong. I discovered that HisPol and PPE were studied by all sorts of people. I have been pleasantly dazzled by the sheer variation.

Anyone can study any course at Oxford. And your course of study confers upon you so many enriching experiences, each subject representing a tight-knit group where you can feel a real sense of camaraderie. It is true that you can feel swamped by others, jostling for the same academic successes you crave, but ultimately I think we all want one another to grow and flourish, and the rivalry is less pronounced than I myself was expecting.

By extension, this holds true for colleges too. Whichever college you end up at (whether you applied there directly or not) you are instantly made to feel part of a family, and treated with the kindness and respect that that entails. This thriving community of thousands of students is thankfully parcelled out into much more manageable sub-communities of hundreds, and enables you to build up a group of friends more easily. I have often felt quite lonely and isolated but there’s usually always someone in college who will be there for you if times get tough (which, it being Oxford, they often do).

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Mental health provision is important in this fostering of community too. Those who feel overwhelmed by the throngs of people they are presented with on a daily basis can sometimes feel just a little daunted. I have found this myself, having to come to terms with the fact that while I may be at one of the best universities in the world, so are 20,000 other people, and it’s impossible to befriend and impress all of them.

I have personally found the Counselling Service and in-college welfare provision to be invaluable, especially this term. Without this close-knit support network, I wouldn’t be writing this article, and would have had to rusticate. This extends to mental issues brought on through academic pressures too.

In every sense I have found Oxford to be a melting pot. Every single one of my expectations about cliques and groups have been confounded. Oxford is a far more open and inclusive environment than I ever could have imagined. The way experiences like hall, matriculation and tutorials work means you feel part of something.

Oxford is so much more than the individual, although individual experiences are important, the ancient traditions and ceremonies make you feel part of a community, part of the legacy of an academic community stretching back nearly 100 years. This community transcends divisions of class, creed and social background.

I genuinely think that Oxford makes its students feel equal and welcome as best it can. This is why the alumni network is so strong. It is that spirit of camaraderie that unites us in this community, a community we will be a part of for the rest of our days, the community that is Oxford University.

Of course, the university could do more to foster a community spirit, but I think it is too easy to say that and dismiss the immense work in fostering friendships and communal ties that the university does.

No: Oxford’s hectic schedule and intense workload makes finding community difficult

Tilly Nevin 

I’m in my second year of Oxford now, and walking back into college after a trip into town or a weekend back home, I feel instantly at ease. I pass people I know, both in my year and those above and below, and I greet scouts and porters who’ve made my years here so much better. I have a group of lovely friends and my college is full of friendly people generally (if very unfriendly, frequently threatening geese), from students to staff. A little removed from town, it provides some calm in the storm with its greenery and modernity.

I’m sure for every person that has been at Oxford for a while—and maybe for some who started only this year—there’s something about their college that makes it ‘home’, even if it’s just a sense of familiarity and routine. Oxford does foster a sense of community in that those in each college—and class— bond over shared stories of awful tutorials and all night essay writing sessions fuelled by Taylor Swift and caffeine, as well as the normal sixth-former- adapting-to-uni experience. But between colleges there’s a distinct lack of community.

Yes, you can discuss the intimidating experience that Oxford inevitably is and yes, you can bond over shared loves like writing or even the different flavours of tea that exist if you’re so inclined. Yet the experience of Oxford varies depending on which college you’re at and any apparent sense of community disappears when you realise you won’t be able to take a break from the busy Oxford schedule to make it across the city. It is near impossible to ensure that you don’t become confined to your own college.

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I do have quite a lot of friends at other colleges, who I’ve met through writing for Cherwell or various events, but in the business of the Oxford week it’s a huge—although of course hugely worthwhile—effort to get across town to a different college or to even find a time where everyone’s free to meet up. Though you might want to, especially in first year, it’s difficult not to feel a nagging guilt whenever you’re not cloistered in the library or your room, reading. Although you might see people at society meetings or talks, you might also often find that one of you is rushing off somewhere else.

Nor does everyone feel at home in their college immediately. Oxford follows the doctrine of ‘throw you in at the deep end’ and normal first year anxieties are exacerbated by the extreme competitiveness and insecurities that characterise the Oxford student. This might force you to bond more closely with those in your class or your friendship group, but Oxford can also be an intensely lonely experience, one that puts you in a state of mind in which it’s hard to extend the hand of friendship.

Working on essays alone for hours at a time often makes you feel cut off from college life in general. The rigour and pressure of Oxford can be damaging to your mental health, making the experience here alienating—however welcoming your college really is. For state school students starting at Oxford there’s often a feeling of inadequacy and intimidation. There might be a sense of community for those who start at Oxford with a web of friends scattered across colleges, but for those without there’s only a pervasive sense of isolation.

Some subject year groups are small enough that a definite sense of community is established pretty quickly. In humanities subjects like English, you’re lost in a sea of people in every lecture you attend. Those attending 9am lectures, I quickly realised, are too tired (or hungover) to even exchange snippets of conversation.

This lack of a community feeling is common to quite a few other universities, but at these there aren’t the strict collegiate distinctions—which are fuelled by innovations like the Norrington Table and declarations of war. On the micro-level these don’t really affect the everyday student but they serve as an example for how hard it can be to create a sense of community between the disparate colleges.

Even within colleges there are often divisions which threaten this sense of community; like at every university students inevitably fall out with other students, but in the close-knit, often claustrophobic atmosphere of college, petty disputes can mean alienation from what seems like the ‘rest’ of college. Particularly at smaller colleges, everyone knows everyone else’s business—and whilst this sometimes creates community, it also means its pretty precarious.

It takes a while to create a sense of community here—it can be achieved but it takes effort and time. Oxford doesn’t ‘foster’ community in any sense of the word. It’s what makes it individual and sometimes amazing, because once you have it, you realise that it’s not something that’s going to be lost easily after being so very, very hard to win.