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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Beyond the Etonians: Simon Kuper’s Chums in today’s Oxford

Pieter Garicano questions how far the Oxford experience has changed since the days of Johnson and Gove.

CW: classism, racism, sexual harassment

Simon Kuper of the Financial Times tells me he is an unlikely candidate to draw back the curtain on what he calls “the Oxocracy”. A card-carrying member of the establishment he shines a light on, he knows that the system he condemns also benefits him. Besides, raised in the Netherlands, Kuper came to Oxford equipped with an outsider’s eye. More than just an exposé of an institution he “had a wonderful time at” or a compilation of party gossip, Chums is meant to provide the necessary context to grasp today’s ruling class.

Throughout, he argues that a unique mix of public school arrogance and Oxford frivolity produced a dominant generation of politicians. Its ranks include David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Dominic Cummings. The book speaks of how they were shaped by the University and how Brexit was born. It also deals with life at the University as it was then – a life perhaps all too recognisable for today’s undergraduates.

Arriving in Oxford just as Johnson and Gove left, but in time to catch Rees-Mogg, Kuper notes that these characters were infamous even as students. From his desk at Cherwell, he had an early front row to the antics of many of today’s front bench. Boris Johnson was one of the most prominent undergraduates of his day. Jeremy Hunt was the boring and bureaucratic president of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA). Gove and Rees-Mogg were constantly lampooned by yesteryear’s Cherwell, a publication then characterised by constant irony and an obsession with these big personalities. 

The men who grew up to become these characters were, in some respects, a diverse bunch. Some, like Cameron, were blue-blooded representatives of the hereditary elite. Others, like Gove, were products of the post-war meritocracy. This mix of hereditaries and aspirationals had fuelled the upper classes throughout British history, and through close relationships and favourable institutions kept a stranglehold on much of the establishment.

Yet, as much as there were differences between them, they had more in common. Nearly all were male. All were white. Almost all belonged to the ‘elite’ even before arriving. In the composition of its student body, the Oxford of Chums is a far cry from today’s University. Kuper recalls asking the only Afro-Caribbean undergraduate in his college what the percentage of Afro-Caribbeans at the University was; the student retorted, “Percentage? There are six Afro-Caribbean undergraduates at the entire University”.

The history which the Oxford Tories learned revolved around themselves too. ‘Men like them’ had ruled over nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface for much of the past century. Spoon-fed a diet of imperialist nostalgia and martial glory from birth, the grey mediocrity of the 1970s taunted them.

However, Oxford Tories went to University in a decade of renewed confidence for the upper classes. The dismal 1970s had been replaced by Thatcher’s 1980s British exceptionalism. Here was a group of men and women who had seen Brideshead Revisited on TV and were determined to make Oxford theirs again. Kuper emphasises that even then it was all an anachronism. It was a conscious effort at imitation of their forefathers, not ‘authenticity’. Without the sense of wartime sacrifice and duty that had characterised the upper classes of old, it ended up being a farcical parody. While most students of that time were listening to The Smiths, this small group set out to copy Sebastian Flyte. 

The defining consequence of 1980s Oxford Tories was Brexit. Birthed as an undergraduate project, it gave meaning and justification to the lives of men whose views of England no longer matched reality. Also, as Kuper notes, the ideals behind Brexit assured them personally of a future. They claimed ownership over Westminster; Brussels was hostile to men like them.

 The University provided an easy backdrop. Inseparable from the men that inhabited it, Oxford shaped their way of life. It rewarded style over substance, and rarely asked for much depth. The book explains how the academic standards of Oxford in the 1980s were different. Tutors were often unqualified, alcoholic, and brutally snobbish. One tutor ‘unapologetically preferred tall blond public schoolboys and girls’. A don at Kuper’s college had a reputation both for exposing himself and trying to recruit students into the intelligence services.

And, while providing a golden ticket to the elite, the entrance was rigged against almost everyone else. For some, admission was guaranteed from birth. Even if things went wrong, privilege would save them. An anecdote from the book mentions Toby Young (now a polemic social commentator). Having failed to meet his offer from Brasenose of two Bs and a C, he was at risk of losing his place. A phone call from his father, Baron Young of Dartington, saved his spot. Ironically, Baron Young happens to be the man responsible for writing the 1945 Labour manifesto and coining the term ‘meritocracy’.  For those who did not belong to the narrow upper and upper-middle classes, entrance to Oxford was restricted if not impossible. 

Yet more striking for today’s Oxonian is how little has changed. It is true that the largest personalities of today are no longer Etonians cosplaying Evelyn Waugh. Yes, the student body is, slowly but surely, becoming more representative of the wider population. And, as Kuper mentions, today’s admissions are four times as competitive, fairer, and much more international. But, fundamentally, the institutional structure of the University described in Chums, the incentives Oxford creates, and the undergraduate life it feeds are not all that different.

Kuper’s paragraphs on the ‘essay crisis’, the insignificance of lectures, and emphasis on rhetoric rather than deep academic learning refer to the Oxford of the 1980s. Yet,  they will ring as true for today’s undergraduates as they did then. At the time, Cherwell reported on the notoriety of Simon Stevens (now a former NHS chief executive) as a legendary tutorial faker who once got halfway through reading his essay before his partner revealed to the tutor that he was reading from a blank sheet of paper; the same anecdote was told by a tutor about a contemporary student only a few months ago. 

It goes beyond the structure of the classes and tutorials. PPE, a degree which then was considered to skate too thinly over three subjects in three years, continues to be criticised for the same reasons. With an academic year lasting just 24 weeks, depth is hard to achieve. With face-to-face time limited to just a few hours each week, the emphasis will always be more superficial. For many Oxford students, now as then, the most important parts of University life are those that take place outside the classroom, ranging from drama to rowing or student politics to socialising. A survey from Kuper’s time indicated that the average student worked on their degree for just twenty hours a week. This continues to be the norm for many students today, even if a tutor quoted in the book explains that the expectation is now forty.  

Like Kuper, this article is not meant to insult Oxford. The University is a wonderful place and, by many objective standards, the world’’s premier institute for scientific research. Yet, reading the book must raise questions for Oxonians today. If the structure of undergraduate life then had such adverse outcomes and is so worthy of condemnation – and the structure fundamentally hasn’t changed – what does that imply for Oxford now?

Kuper doesn’t just single out the University itself. He dedicates multiple chapters to the Union, a place that served as a political finishing school for many of the Oxford Tories. Failings in today’s cabinet are traced to habits encouraged then, from electioneering and ‘binning’ to an emphasis on rhetorical flair over substance, Yet those habits continue to be an intrinsic feature of the Union, even if those partaking have changed. I ask him if, now that Etonians no longer run the show, it’s fine that a place like the Union teaches you to ‘hack’ and ‘knife’. Kuper responds by highlighting greater inclusivity at the broader University, where 69% of those admitted are now from state schools. 

One wonders, however, how much this affects the outcome. Indeed, the participants have changed, but the place, once they arrive, hasn’t.  Like the University, the Union highlights its greater inclusivity – but the incentives and politics remain. In many ways it is student politics that has changed the least. This term will see Union members vote once again on whether slates should be banned, as they once were in Johnson’s day. 

Even the inclusivity increase is complex. The book mentions the cost of Union membership in the late 1980s being £65.  Adjusted for inflation, this is equivalent to £146. The current price of the membership is almost twice that, at £286. Even an ‘access’ membership costs £169.95. Meanwhile, the prominence of ‘hacks’ in Oxford life may have grown greater still. Kuper tells me of many of the big names then, “It’s not that I hated them. I just was not very aware of them. They were very far for me. I was very far from them. We had our own lives. I had a very happy life.”

Boris Johnson was exceptional precisely because he was one of the few undergraduates known to the wider student population. Today, social media allows many students to become ‘big names on campus’. Scandals rapidly become common knowledge, even as the permanence of the internet means the stakes are ever higher. To be sure, Cherwell would write pieces like 1988’s ‘Union hacks in five-in-a-bed romp shocker’ about Michael Gove. But its reach and frequency was a fraction of Oxfess’ today. 

Undoubtedly, Kuper is aware that many of the flaws in the University persist. In the final chapter of the book, he deals with “what is to be done”. Radically, he even proposes shuttering the institution and making it graduate or research only. He celebrates the Dutch or German systems while noting that they do not deliver close to the same level of academic excellence.  Nor, as Kuper is aware, are the best universities in these countries immune to similar accusations of elitism. He (rightly) notes that shutting Oxford would see different universities (Imperial, King’s College London, and so on) increase in prestige, as would-be Oxonians seek education elsewhere. 

What remains unclear from the book is if Kuper’s primary criticism of Oxford today is who gets a spot, or what the University does to students once they arrive. Despite arguing against the abolition of private schools, it seems the upper- and upper-middle class grip on Oxford bothers him most. However, as he writes repeatedly throughout, Oxford’s intake is changing. Each cohort is more reflective of wider society. What – broadly – hasn’t changed is the incentives students face upon matriculating and the structures within the institution that will shape them.

“To understand the man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” The quote serves as Chums’ epigraph and summary.  In good Oxford fashion (and as Kuper acknowledges), the catchy Napoleonic quote is probably apocryphal. The book that results is entertaining, eminently readable, and very recognisable. Yet, for those of us who are twenty now in Oxford, it raises the question: faced with an all-too-similar environment, will we be different?

Image credit: Cherwell archival image

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