Yes: Emily Dillistone
Back in school, if someone told you something would ‘set you up for life’, I always inferred that they meant that it would ‘make you more employable in the future’. In my opinion, this is the motive behind parents paying to send their children to private school, or sending them to scouts. When people want to be ‘set up for life’, what they really mean is that they want access to two important things: money and happiness. I believe that Oxford provides both.
So, how come I believe that Oxford makes you more money than going to other universities? I reckon you only have to look as far as the wealth of some of our alumni. A lot of colleges’ wealth comes from the donations of alumni, which will, of course, be us in the future. Could one honestly state that Oxford’s rich alumni, the likes of Rupert Murdoch and half the Conservative party, would have been just as successful, had they gone elsewhere? In the past, Oxford may simply have attracted people who were bound to make money in the future, or who happened to have a lot inthe first place, but from my point of view it is a lot more complex these days. An Oxford education gives its graduates the tools needed for success in the City, business and a whole load of other walks of life, and subsequently they get rich.
One of the main reasons we’re apparently so employable is our ability to churn out coherent thoughts in a relatively short space of time. The Oxford tutorial system sets us students up for life when we learn how to take heart-wrenchingly blunt criticism and, what’s more, get over it. At Oxford we are forced to work under intense pressure and, in the long run, this pays off. The real reason our parents were so happy when we received the acceptance letter, and why employers’ mouths will twitch into a smile when they see the ‘O’ word at the top of our CV, is that Oxford has transformed us into efficient work machines. We are made better than the A-level students we once were through a three or four-year period of high stakes work. Oxford doesn’t just make you employable: it practically gives you a career. The Careers Service is particularly important for this, with contacts across the globe in an unimaginably diverse range of jobs. We get opportunities to engage with every kind of firm imaginable, from international corporations to specialist local firms, and many students take them. For many, what makes ‘The Oxford Experience’ is the number of chances students get to prepare for the world outside, from the numerous careers fairs to all those internships at students’ fingertips.
Beyond questions of employment, setting up students for life involves the process of making friends and contacts for the future. They say University is the main source of lifelong friendships, and with Oxford’s collegiate system, making friends is pretty much unavoidable. While in other Universities you are limited to your accommodation block and the odd person who sits next to you in lectures, college life means that we are exposed to all sorts of people engaged in all sorts of disciplines. Some of the most passionate, fierce, and engaging debates I have ever had have taken place inside this city’s walls. I have most likely encountered more highly intelligent individuals in my few years here than I will at any other point in my life. I am sure that some of the friends I have already made are people who will be very helpful contacts in the future. Personally, I am banking on the fact that simply by hanging around at The Union Debating Society and befriending the Presidents of various societies, in time I will be sorted for life.
Oxford has got a lot of bad press recently, with images of the Bullingdon Club and stories of ‘Pig Gate’ circulating the national press. Yet, from what I can gauge from these stories, the fact that there are so many famous Oxford alumni available to be exposed in the press suggests that Oxford is doing something right. I can’t necessarily explain every facet of an Oxford education’s success in this brief article, but I know that, as a student at the moment, I am at the centre of events. I am receiving the best training I could possibly want for a career, I have access to the best opportunities for future employment, and, to top it all, I am amongst all these future leaders in so many different fields. Personally, I don’t think any other university could ‘set me up’ for life better than Oxford.
No: Daniel Minister
I don’t want to be a banker. Though I will confess I did try to get onto a summer internship programme with a well-known bank distinguished by a black horse for a logo. I’d always thought a magpie would be a better emblem for a bank than a horse. But it was the only one I could afford, so I applied regardless. And failed. I still wonder what an analysis of turnover and profit projections had to do with the media department… so as the end of my degree approaches, an MPhil becomes more and more appealing, if only to delay the inevitable search for employment.
But no-one in my family seems to be worried. There appears to be this recurring notion that once you get into Oxford, you’re made. You won’t have to work all that hard, you’ll just stumble into a job in the city, or the government, or the media. The establishment awaits you. Its doors, like those to the Bodleian on Catte Street, will be flung open thanks to your Oxford degree. With a third under your belt, you enter a boy and exit David Dimbleby.
I don’t want to appear depressing, especially while many freshers pile into the brave new world of their staircases and their predecessors soldier back in dread of their dissertations. But a degree alone is simply not enough. There is, you may be surprised to hear, a reason why we receive so many emails from the Careers Service informing us of the latest job opportunities. It’s the same reason why you see those students scuttling off to canapé evenings to get a business card off a lawyer who has already handed out hundreds before. It’s why we’re told, throughout the duration of our courses, the value of ‘networking’, which is quite difficult if you don’t know anyone to network. And even if you do find someone, it’s quite often the case that you won’t be able to afford the internship you are offered.
The reason for these things is that having Oxford University at the top of your CV simply isn’t enough. You might get into Oxford, but you might not have the connections that go with it. The Blairite former MP Alan Milburn has referred to this situation as the ‘glass floor’ for bright working-class students. Research for his Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has found, “Better-off kids are 35 per cent more likely to become high earners than bright poor kids.” The report highlights a phenomenon labelled ‘opportunity hoarding.’ While there are some internship opportunities that support students with the cost of transport and accommodation, for many of the poorest in our University, and those far from the gold-paved roads of London, an internship can be unaffordable and inaccessible. The wealthy, the well-employed and the well-connected have been able to maintain their children’s status through internship-swapping and money. Social mobility in our supposed meritocracy becomes, at worst, a one-way street, and at best, a narrow lane with electric bollards.
And to make matters worse, competition is growing. The poorest and most poorly connected students aren’t the only ones affected. Just because we’re in the best university in the world at the moment, that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. I know there are some Oxford students who think that there’s only one other university, but businesses don’t seem to think that way. For example, we’re a country with a severe skills shortage. As such, hands-on experience in engineering with global players is in big demand.
Up and down the country, other universities are powering ahead. While a place like Swansea may not have the prestige of its older rivals, it has aspiration rather than condescension. Having recently spent hundreds of millions of pounds opening a new innovation campus on the seafront, it has elicited the backing of Rolls-Royce and BP amongst other big companies. Oxford might be at the top of the world rankings, but it has competition.
We live in a nation where higher education has become increasingly marketised. At the risk of sounding out of my depth with a sporting analogy, universities have become division teams to premier league employers. We, the students, are just their players. Just as Aaron Ramsay can start off at Cardiff City and end up playing for Arsenal, a student at Swansea can end up designing engines for Rolls-Royce. Exactly the sort of job that Oxford graduates of old might have ended up in.
An Oxford degree might carry prestige, but I don’t think prestige alone is enough anymore.
In an increasingly globalised world, competition is getting stronger and stronger. We no longer face competition only from other graduates of British universities, but from graduates all over the world, many of whom hold degrees from equally prestigious institutions.
Tens of thousands graduate every year from esteemed universities in Europe, America and increasingly from institutions in China and India. An Oxford degree is often insufficient to make you stand out. While new bonds are being formed between other universities and employers worth billions of investment capital, complacency is not an option.
A degree from Oxford University is a wonderful privilege and one that can act as a springboard for success in later life. Yet Oxford students should be aware that the Oxford name is not a passport to power, money and happiness. Students must work hard to build their CV and to prove their competence.
Getting a job is going to be hard. Getting a job we want is going to be even harder.