As I arrived home from the Trinity Commemoration Ball on Saturday, I was greeted by the spectacle of weary stragglers snapped by the tabloid press. It was as if the paparazzi had been ready to pounce as soon as they caught wind of another frivolous Oxford ball. Hardly a surprise, I thought to myself, this is yet another episode in the long-running saga of the media’s obsession with Oxbridge. The fixation is hardly surprising, they are two of the best universities in the country, populated by those who may one day run the country. This obsession, however, appears to be skewed towards viewing Oxbridge exclusively as a paragon of privilege. This is emblematic of a narrative that Oxford is a toy-town world, seemingly off limits to everyone bar the lucky few.
Such an idea is, of course, palpably untrue. The hyperbolic media coverage of Oxford plays to the knowledge that potential candidates form part of the ‘social media generation’. They are therefore the most likely to absorb the impressions portrayed in the media. If I hadn’t conducted my own research and visited the University myself, my idea of what Oxford was would rest on The Riot Club and a smattering of statistics from The Guardian indicating that the colleges I was considering were public school strongholds. The media’s obsession with Oxbridge might be justifiable, given the aura and the pull of our oldest universities, however the narrative that Oxbridge remains a bastion of elitism and exclusivity is highly damaging.
One only has to trawl through the headlines of leading newspapers to see daunting admissions figures circulated and sensationalised; just last year The Guardian published articles entitled ‘Oxbridge fails to persuade state teachers to send pupils for interview’ and ‘David Cameron’s Oxford college admits fewest state school applicants.’
Indeed, there are entire sections of websites solely dedicated to “Oxbridge and elitism”. Clearly, it’s important for the universities to take note of these figures, but surely barraging and bombarding potential applicants with such statistics merely served to deepen doubts and reinforce reservations about applying. One can’t help feeling that the reported successes of the institution are being vastly swamped by its arguable failures. A quick search of the internet will likely yield far more stories about problems of exclusivity than advances in inclusivity.
It’s likely that fewer than half of Oxford students will attend a ball, let alone one of the few which are white tie. Despite this, barely one day after Trinity’s Commemoration Ball, a lengthy article sprung up, written almost in the style of David Attenborough, documenting the activities of the lesser-spotted Oxford student. Who knew that stumbling home after the ball would be fraught with the danger of being ambushed by the paparazzi, foaming at the bit for a sighting of dishevelled students. Far more coverage was given to this one event than all of Trinity College’s access work conducted in the past year. This is presumably because documenting outreach work is somehow counter to the compelling narrative that Oxford is exclusive.
In light of this, it’s unsurprising that the most many know about Oxford is the Bullingdon Club, which despite having fewer than 10 members, hasn’t stopped Hollywood capitalising on the mythology and mysticism of this and other student societies. In the context of this spotlight on what are very uncommon occurrences at Oxford and Cambridge, the narrative that the universities are somehow the plaything of a privileged elite is relentlessly perpetuated. In doing so, the media reinforces the sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ that one can feel when considering applying, a sentiment which my own experience reflects.
I worry that the current coverage of Oxbridge imbues many with the feeling that Oxford and Cambridge are somehow not for them. The media should be wary of how an indictment of Oxford elitism can serve to sustain the stereotypes they so clearly disapprove of.