Proposition: Joseph Mochhoury, St. Hugh’s College

Oxford University is defined by its students. And the Earth is blue like an orange.

The student is the best ambassador the University will ever have; the Oxford alumni will defend the University because they define it – and to a certain extent, the University also defines its students. This is of course reciprocal. It is not about the diploma, but about the diplomacy.

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It is the success of the students that has made and is still making the success of Oxford University. Not the other way around, although the other components of the University (teaching, research, etc.) can help the students fulfill their potential. The student will always cherish her/his years at Oxford, often regarded as a new starting point. Scientific research shows us that in these years, the human brain is still developing until the age twenty-five. Innovation is key to all kinds of research. 

University is about using the Socratic method. It’s not about giving people answers but about drawing ideas out of the individual. This is why there is no age limit to be a student, and mature students do exist and are growing in numbers. It is said you never stop learning in the ‘university of life’ – this is the notion that life experience itself gives somebody a form of education not shown as formal qualifications.

A reason why Oxford University is so attractive is because students will emulate one another, and people genuinely want to meet other people like them. Also, talking and exchanging with students is the best way to have interesting cross-disciplinary discussions that are relevant to today’s world.

It is also the so-called ‘Oxford bubble’ that strengthens the idea of a stereotypical Oxonian student. Perhaps when this bubble bursts things will eventually change. A greater state-school intake will hopefully bring a more diverse outlook that will lead Oxford to a post-modernist universality. Oxford University is definitely progressive, a work constantly in progress and, thankfully, unfinished business.

As COVID-19 shows, it may be possible to move teaching and examinations online, but you simply cannot move the buildings. These empty streets just don’t feel like Oxford University, where so many nationalities are normally represented. It is a meeting place for students around the world. This is why now more than ever we can affirm that Oxford University is defined by its students.

Opposition: Jack Glynne-Jones, Lady Margaret Hall

Oxford University defines its student body before it has even arrived in Oxford. Through the rigorous application process, it funnels out those who it does not see as being ‘Oxford material’. These interviews have a particularly intensive style which supposedly identifies those who ‘know how to think’, who have an aptitude for a certain critical approach.

The interview style may favour those with audacity and a belief in their own abilities, and famously benefits private school pupils where Oxbridge interview training may take place. I know of people who have turned down their offers after being put off by the nature of the interviews. Those who enjoy these challenges are not only more likely to succeed in the application process but are more likely to accept their offers or apply in the first place.

If we look at the University’s major changes throughout history it is clear that these have been based less upon pressure from the student body and more on changes in society. Take the decision to accept female students in 1878 as an example. Arguments made by external feminist groups led to the formation of the Association for the Higher Education of Women, consisting of some college masters and wardens. The all-male student body, at best, expressed a perplexed indifference to their new fellow students. At worst, some engaged in boorish and intimidating behaviour. The decision to not only allow female education to continue but to set up more female colleges starkly highlights the way in which it is the University’s governing bodies that shape its identity, not the students.

Ancient traditions and architecture are perhaps the strongest factors shaping Oxford’s identity. When people speak of Oxford, what first comes to mind tends to be the Radcliffe Camera, Christ Church dining hall, the old Bodleian, gowns, Latin speeches, and peculiar parades through cobbled streets.

Oxford has seen plagues, the burning of martyrs, and the English Civil War. There are few universities in the world which can claim such a history. These things not only attract tourists but, I believe, act as a major draw to many students also. These strong roots shape not only the way others view the University, but the way it views itself. A lot of students who arrive with a scepticism of ‘posh boat races’, ‘port and policies’, and ‘bops’, soon find themselves falling for all the Oxford jargon, throwing themselves at these events, including myself.

Despite all this, I am optimistic that the student body plays a vital role in maintaining the University’s identity. The incredible selection of student societies, mostly set up by students, are a key part of Oxford life, and I highly value the way we contribute to the soul of our university. However, I believe that the institution’s old traditions and teaching style are the major factors shaping its identity. Perhaps it is because it is less the job of the student to change the University to suit their own desires, and more the job of the University to change the student, which makes higher education, and the university experience anywhere, worthwhile.