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Scratching the surface of the Oxbridge myth

BySarah Henderson

Sep 30, 2014
courtesy of andrew dunn

The term ‘Oxbridge’ usually conjures one of two images in the minds of the public. It can denote an exclusive institution full of wealthy, bright young things and eccentric professors; a place of ‘dreaming spires’ and too much opulence, perfect for breeding out of touch posh future political leaders and prime ministers. Conversely, it can denote a flourishing educational institution worthy of its status as one of the best institutions of its kind in the world, allowing talent to thrive in an exciting and superbly resourced environment. Yet how worthy is Oxbridge of its perceived prestige, and what perception is most truly perceptive of Oxbridge and its students?

It’s quite easy to see why so many people perceive Oxbridge as an overly prestigious and exclusive institution. A student responding with the answer “I study at Oxford/Cambridge” does earn respect, but is equally subject to the inward response of the person inquiring of: “Ah, a posh Oxbridge student”. Personally, this was the response I received just from admitting that I had received an interview (which thankfully, with hindsight, resulted in the all too frequent rejection letter) at University College, Oxford for History. Certainly, respect was earned, but this was coupled with the belief that if successful I would become a posh student with little regard for any former friends in the confines of my new prestigious Oxbridge halls, punting along the river and quaffing champagne. In fact, at my interview, I was pleased and relieved to meet many normal folk from different areas of the country, with a greater majority coming from a state educated background. This chimes with the trending statistics: last year, 56.8 per cent were admitted from state schools into Oxford, and 61.4 per cent from state schools into Cambridge. However, it has to be said that despite the apparent increase of state-school educated students at Oxbridge and a heightened awareness of this fact, the air of prestige and pride within Oxbridge institutions and their professors feels all-pervasive, regardless of whether it is worthy of it or not.

The recent film The Riot Club has sparked further debate as to how entrenched these perceptions of the opulence and ‘poshness’ of certain Oxbridge students. Max Irons, who stars as inductee Miles Richards, met a couple of Bullingdon Club members in preparation for the film, who confirmed that the world depicted in the film wasn’t far from the truth. Richards added, “It’s hard to believe these people actually exist.” Whilst co-star Douglas Booth stated that after meeting Oxbridge students individually in the dining room he found them “charming and easy to talk to”, he could not help but realise that when these people come together they become the universally perceived Oxbridge students: rich, posh and with an exclusive penchant for opulence. “It’s like a pack mentality”, Booth said. Debauchery may be the norm for many students out ‘on the lash’, but clearly the heights reached by the represented elite Oxbridge students in the film are far from reality for the vast majority of university students, and an example of the perceived misuse of the prestige Oxbridge cultivates.

Is this prestige simply a guise for an exclusive club which is out of touch with reality? To some extent, the answer appears to be yes. According to Rosie Millard, writing in The Independent earlier in August, prospective students at a Cambridge open day were informed that History of Art students only study works of art within Cambridge in the first year of their study, which seems incredibly limiting. Moreover, whilst courses offered at Oxbridge such as Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norse are interesting and incredibly well-researched and resourced, they are unlikely to prepare a student for reality in the world of work post-university. The infamous Oxbridge interview questions seem similarly out of touch and impractical. For example, the question: “Do you think you’re clever?” posed by a Cambridge professor to an interviewee for Law seems deliberately antiquated, with any suggestion of a “no” answer requiring the response: “why are you here at this prestigious university then?”

Yet, despite an apparent need to demonstrate prestige for the sake of prestige, it is hard to ignore the fact that Oxbridge continues to create a unique and fully resourced educational experience for its students. Cambridge is placed second and Oxford, fifth in the 2014/2015 QS World University Rankings, which cannot be by prestige alone. It could be argued that by default an Oxbridge education is exclusive and allows only Oxbridge graduates into certain spheres of work, such as becoming Prime Minister. However, instead of jumping to conclusions, perhaps this is the case precisely because the education is worthy of the prestige as internationally acclaimed universities? Fourteen former Prime Minsters attended Cambridge and twenty-seven attended Oxford. This is possibly as an example of exclusivity, but more likely an indicator that the education individuals such as Gladstone, Attlee and Thatcher received prepared them to deal with politically tough situations requiring the skill of being very much in touch with reality.

Perhaps most tellingly, Laura Wade, the writer of the 2010 play Posh – which formed the basis of The Riot Club – stated that the film was created to raise questions surrounding such institutions, but not to accuse public schools and Oxbridge as being synonymous with the represented image. Only ten out of the 20,000 students studying at Oxbridge are in the supposed Riot Club, a great minority, and it is unfair to continue to tarnish all Oxbridge students and the institution itself with the same judgemental brush. Such historical institutions are bound to be accused of being exclusive and antiquated when they continue to aspire to attain high educational standards, retain their historic foundations and prestigious reputations. Prestige is a fundamental part of Oxbridge, but so too is educational prowess.


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