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Oxford must change its essay obsession

The weekly grind of Oxford has detrimental effects on our learning, our mental health, and society at large

By this point, everyone reading this should be familiar with how working at Oxford goes. I will spare you all the details of mine or your work schedules, for fear of sounding cliched. Often it is easy to forget that this is not the norm. Most universities do not set work on a weekly, or even fortnightly basis, but Oxford decides to.

While the University claims this produces a higher standard of student and I’m sure it does in some ways, when one really thinks about it this weekly workload is simply unhealthy, unhelpful, with worrying implications for professional culture in Britain.

First, is the fundamental fact that students have no time. Time is swallowed away by endless demands for more reading, more essays, and more late nights. This paucity of time is evident in the shallow extra-curricular lives most students lead today. Magdalen Ball was cancelled due to a lack of volunteers, a sign of overworked students with no energy to do anything else.

Hollowed out by their degree, students find that all they do is their work, with nihilistic, unconstructive clubbing to compliment. This is the age where we need to be finding a purpose, pursuing our own goals. Oxford bans such self-discovery – for an institution that claims to promote independence and self-learning, it leaves no space for it

When one’s life is one’s degree, this is a dangerous position to be in. Exhaustion, illness, social crises are allowed to creep in and once taken hold can interrupt such a degree. Students often find themselves left with nothing. It is no wonder Oxford spends more on mental health than any other university – a fact it shamefully holds up with pride, who euphemistically say they “lead the development”.

The damage that Oxford’s weekly work schedule has on student life is evident to anyone who has lived it and seen others live through it.

Having to produce written work, or answer sheets on a weekly basis does not allow for long term memory commitment but instead a perpetual cram, rushing information into one’s head on a daily basis. Once collections swing around after the vac you will wonder if you wrote those essays at all. The perpetual cram of the weekly schedule leaves no long-term memory.

Often, Oxford education does not seem like a process of learning or improvement but rather a constant test. Meeting all deadlines does not represent improved knowledge but simply a better work ethic. This fact shows Oxford to be no more than a cynical £9250 test, a way of signalling how smart we are, rather than becoming smarter as a result.

We have to ask what implications such a style of learning has upon the culture of work at large. The methods we learn at university will come to be the methods we use in the workplace.

Whether you like it or not, the alumni of Oxford come to dominate the most important workplaces in our society. By implication that means the work methods we learn in Oxford comes to be the work methods that dominate the workplace.

Making decisions and drawing conclusions from the bare minimum of information, cramming, and blagging are methods we come to learn to survive Oxford’s weekly grind. Such behaviour in the workplace leads to disaster.

In the public sector, we can all see the Oxford blag in Boris Johnson’s inflammatory bluster. In the private sector Oxford’s culture, less visibly, detriments. The value of short term results over long term stability is present in the irresponsible behaviour of corporations. The 2009 World Recession is no doubt the result of hasty conclusions and rushed action.

As a leader in education, Oxford has a responsibility to establish a culture of responsibility in its graduates. By setting unrealistic work expectations it is doing exactly the opposite. Oxford needs to change. By overworking its students, Oxford damages its students, society at large, and even its ability to educate. The weekly essay deadline, the weekly answer sheet, undermines everything.

While Oxford could reduce how many essays it sets, there is undoubtedly a value in the high standards it places upon its students in how much it expects us to learn.

The bigger problem seems to be the ridiculous time frames in which Oxford expects us to learn its content. 8 weeks is no time at all, a measly sixth of a year. Term lengths should be extended. We’ve all heard the colleges protestations that they need money from conferences and visiting students but we have all also seem the lavish sums of money in their possession.

If the University truly believes against the commodification of education, it should be willing to sacrifice some sources of revenue for the benefit of its educational experience, its student’s health, and society at large.

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