How Oxford culture is dominated by the most privileged

The issue is not a simple matter of discrimination but long term deficiencies in cultural upbringing in less privileged students

For years now, students have been fighting to make the institutions of Oxford more accessible to people of every background. Political societies such as OUCA are placed under  a heavy eye of scrutiny, but in doing so we neglect the accessibility of Oxford’s cultural scene. While the inspection of Cultural institutions has been far less rigorous, there seems to be just as much inaccessibility to the top positions in culture as in political societies.

To many, OUCA or the Oxford Union is so reprehensible and exclusive that it doesn’t matter whether it is accessible to them. Culture, on the other hand, matters to everyone. We all seek to gain from culture as audience or creator. Whether it be playing in a band, running a club night, or acting in a play, participation satisfies that universal itch to create.

Perhaps the most overwhelmingly popular and student organised cultural scene in Oxford is its theatre. Every Oxford term week is host to at least two plays created by students. Despite the seeming accessibility, with a menagerie of opportunities, this scene is surprisingly lacking. Of student-run plays in Michaelmas 2017, 60 per cent of directors came from private schools. Considering the similarly unrepresentative admission statistic 44.3 per cent private schoolers in Oxford, being a play director in Oxford seems to be disproportionally for the university’s privately educated.

This figure is only of the top end of one particular Oxford scene, however you can bet your bottom dollar that the same private school dominance exists in other areas. Whether in the clubbing scene, classical music, or jazz bands anecdotal evidence pervades of a similar degree of inaccessibility for students of more moderate backgrounds.

This issue is not a simplistic problem of discrimination. Private school students aren’t barring state school students from positions in productions for their education. The barriers faced by state schoolers are more subtle and pervasive than a simple matter of selection bias.

Neither is it a case of incompetent private schoolers occupying these positions. Those who have reached the top of Oxford culture are still talented individuals, having all gone through a selective process to reach where they are. The lack of comprehensively educated students participating in culture is the result of those students often being denied the resources necessary for developing creative skills throughout their upbringing. The problem is not too many untalented privately educated thesps, but not enough opportunity for talented comprehensive thesps to hone their craft.

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Attending a private school is often the result of wealth, and being raised in a stable and encouraging household. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There are privately educated families lacking educational support at home and plenty of state-educated families with enthusiastic and supportive approaches to learning. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that even in households where parents care less about their child’s education, money can buy books, extra tuition and exciting school trips. This home-life can help kickstart a creative career – buying a child an instrument (or, increasingly, a pair of decks) costing hundreds of pounds is something only well-to-do children can experience. Of all those children who could never afford the resources for a cultural education, their creative abilities were stifled and remain unexpressed even at university. When I hear about all the acting or painting classes my better off friends took during the summers before university, I wonder how much more burgeoning the arts scene in Oxford would be were all students offered similar levels of support.

The enhanced cultural education enjoyed by private schoolers is not only seen at home but also in the schools they attend. With greater curricular independence and comfortable finances, independent schools can invest more in cultural education. Pupils enjoy greater costumes and staging for drama classes, better teachers and more instruments for orchestras. The effect of cohorts is significant too. Home-lives bereft of cultural encouragement will produce comprehensive pupils lacking enthusiasm. An enthusiastic student will soon find themselves disillusioned with the idea of directing plays when trying and failing to work with their colleagues in a drama class.

More distinct and perhaps frustrating is the social capital that a private education confers upon its alumni upon their admission into Oxford. Students emerging out of a private school feeding Oxford with 30-40 students will have a pre-existing web of connections which will serve them well in navigating the cultural landscape of Oxford, comprehensive students do not have this luxury. The web of connections from private education, ‘inherited BNOC-hood’ if you will, helps students in applying to positions in productions, hearing about auditions before others and finding themselves benefitted by the unconscious biases of ‘knowing a guy’.

The effect of ‘inherited BNOChood’ is that, a comprehensive student, who – after experiencing a poorer cultural education both at home and at school – still finds motivation for participation and creation, will find barriers surrounding them – feeling a stranger in a university full of connections. A motivated student may try organising their own production or running their own clubnight. However, the lack of connections still come into play here. While a private school student can call upon their army of home friends to promote and attend their night or play, covering the costs of venue hire, a comprehensive student may lack these means.

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The lack of participation in Oxford culture from state-educated students represents a failure that harms everyone. By failing to give state-school students adequate representation, Oxford culture lacks a perspective that needs greater expression and observance. Imagine how much richer and fuller Oxford culture could be if every comprehensive student felt the same passion and drive for participating in the scene.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Yup. I had nothing but contempt for the Union and OUCA when I was up, but was pretty devastated to fail an orchestra audition, find a first attempt at poetry treated with utter derision, and feel locked out of theatre entirely. I know lots of people braver than I was who stuck with it and will disagree with you, but I ended up doing very few of the cultural things I would have loved to do, self-excluding after the discouragement of initial setbacks.

  2. I was a state school pupil and took part in everything going – jazz performances, acting in OUDS productions at the Playhouse etc. It was just a case of going to auditions and having a crack. A lot was down to ignoring the sense of entitlement of some more privileged contemporaries. I had no network or friends when I arrived but found you needed a thick skin and determination to fight your way in.

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