Class rules

Privilege still an issue at Oxford University

It’s not often you wake up to discover you’ve gone viral. Even less for tweeting about scrubbing your Oxford Uni college mates’ toilets. Over the last vacation, I worked as a cleaner at my college in order to afford to live, while many of my friends were off gallivanting on luxurious holidays. Coming to Oxford as a first-generation, state-school kid from Coventry, you’d think it hardly surprising that such experiences illuminate the class divide between my peers and me. But none had ever felt so stark as this. So, like any opinionated twenty-year-old, I tweeted about it. Apparently it was a shocking revelation to a lot of people and my tweet did the rounds for a couple of days; I don’t think I’ll ever again experience that much mass sympathy from mums on the internet. I even got a call from my Dad to say one of his work colleagues had seen it, which quite frankly horrified me. 

It was absolutely baffling to me that so many people – including those who’d been students here themselves – believed an institution as archaic as Oxford University would have changed so much in the last 50 years or so. And while yes, I won’t deny the University has made progress, and the access work many Colleges do is encouraging, that doesn’t change the reality – the university caters to, and is disproportionately made up of, the monied classes. No amount of school visits, open days and summer schools will change the fact that, once here, poor kids will always be at a huge disadvantage, academically, socially, personally and financially.

Coincidentally, Simon Kuper’s book Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK was released the day before my tweet about toilet-scrubbing. The book is a brilliant but deeply dismal exploration of the political cliques at Oxford and the monopoly over British politics they go on to wield. Having been at Oxford nearly two years, I was shocked by how much I learnt from Kuper about the way the “other half” works, a side of the university I’ve found myself excluded from. At the same time, the book made me realise that some aspects of my academic experience here are quite universal. Though Kuper writes about the Oxford of the 1980s, in many ways the Oxford of the 2020s is not all that different. 

For example, the Oxford application process is a period of my life that still haunts me. There was virtually no school support, so the whole thing was a game of guesswork. I applied to Wadham because on open days they were the only college I’d come across that branded themselves left-wing. Wadham loves to call itself a progressive college, at the heart of student activism. And though this isn’t incorrect, the fact that every warden in its 400-year history has been a straight white man says a lot about what’s perceived as “progressive” across the university. 

My first proper visit to Wadham was for my interviews. Just two days before, I got the bollocking of a lifetime from my mother, on coming home from the hairdressers with a freshly-cut mullet. “What were you thinking?! You’re interviewing at Oxford University in two days, what are they going to think about you turning up looking like that?”, she yelled. She also made me remove my acrylic nails, suspecting Oxford wouldn’t be a fan of those either. Before I’d even got there, I was taking steps to alter myself and my image to fit with what I, and my mum, perceived as “Oxford”. My charity shop-scrounged wardrobe, newly-cut mullet, long black nails and angsty, radical, eighteen-year-old attitude just wouldn’t wash. Cut to two years later, when, as an undergraduate, I’m invited to a high table dinner as a thank-you for having run an event for college, an immensely surreal experience. One of the Emeritus Fellows asks where I grew up. “What kind of crazy-good grades were you getting to be able to get into Oxford from Coventry?” they quizz. In fact, I missed my offer by one grade (taking A-Level maths will always be the worst decision I ever made) but luckily was accepted anyway. Clearly the “French chic” look I finally went for with my interview outfit paid off. And though the mullet is long gone, I did attend high table with my current black-streaked hair, wearing scuffed-up Doc Martens and a ’70s Biba top; I may have altered my image momentarily to get into Oxford, but haven’t let it drive the punk out of me. 

Kuper talks a lot about Oxford being an institution of aesthetics, and while the aesthetics have shifted, it’s still true. The college I’m at prides itself on its state school intake, currently 70.4%, but if you look at the non-selective state school intake figures, it’s not such a pretty picture. Even those from state comps are mostly from the best in the country, and almost all from well-educated families. I would hazard that a minimum half the people in my year have at least one parent that’s an academic. So although it’s a college that does great access work, it’s clear these “state school figures” are equivocal. Oxford is inherently an institution that, even in the 2020s, caters for those who have the privilege of being able to communicate in academic rhetoric, can present themselves in a sophisticated manner and, in essence, have had a more bourgeois experience of life. Whether that’s the result of private schooling, grammar schooling, or growing up in an academic environment, it’s still the case that the majority of students here today have significant cultural privileges that prepare them for the environment of Oxford. 

“We have to get jobs between terms, so it’s easy to understand why burn-out in state school kids is so common”

This preparation functions as a form of cultural capital. On arrival, it became clear I hadn’t read enough, had no idea how to write an essay and could barely produce a coherent sentence in a tutorial. Whereas those from more academically privileged backgrounds are prepared for what will be thrown at them, the rest of us are playing catch-up and often have to work longer hours to acquire the necessary mentality of critical approach. Unfortunately we are also the ones who usually have to work full-time between terms, so it’s easy to understand why burn-out in state school kids is so common. Last year, one of my friends generously ran an eight-week “Intro to Classics” class for those of us studying humanities who hadn’t been offered classics at school. The fact it was a fellow student who saw the gap in academic provision demonstrates how Oxford turns a blind eye to student needs. Why should my friend have to take time out of their degree to teach us what we couldn’t access at school? Why does the university still assume classics is a fundamental of prior knowledge when it’s no longer on the general school curriculum? 

It is worth noting that while state school figures at Oxford are rising, the number of private school students is still disproportionate. In 2021, 31.8% of Oxford’s intake was from private schools, yet only 5.8 per cent of the UK population was privately educated, according to ISC figures. Getting to know all the names and cultures of the biggest private schools in this country, such as Eton, Winchester and Harrow, is not something I thought would ever happen to me, yet I now know at least one person from almost every major private school in London. Kuper’s arguments, about elite private-school boys who move through Oxford and its societies to become the ruling class in a very cyclical, rite-of-passage way, raise questions about our feudal society. Given this year is the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, monarchy and what it represents is on many people’s minds, so perhaps we need to start viewing those Oxford Etonians with the scepticism we apply to hereditary monarchy because, as Kuper demonstrates, the two parties aren’t quite so different as we might expect. 

This feels like a good moment to bring up one of my favourite memories from Freshers’ week and probably the biggest culture-shock moment of my life. It’s three days into university, I’ve met everyone I live with and some friendships are starting to bud. We have nothing planned for the evening, so a group of us go out rambling around the centre of Oxford, trying to find a pub with space for us. One of the boys, one of my loveliest housemates from last year, keeps bumping into people he knows every twenty metres, though the rest of us don’t know anyone but each other. At one point, another of my friends turns to me and says, “Doesn’t it feel like we’re his entourage?” I agree, we laugh it off, and eventually manage to make our way to a bar, though it feels like a Homeric voyage to get there. The next morning, I discover our popular housemate is not only an Etonian, but also a German aristocrat. 

There’s a strong connection between these Etonian boys and the student politics institutions of the university, specifically the Oxford Union. I am not a member, nor have I ever attended; Wadham’s student body boycotts it for a number of reasons, but it’s not something I’d ever want to be part of anyway. My impression is that, while on a surface level the Union is accessible to students of diverse backgrounds, and offers “interesting debates” etc etc, it still functions for the same purpose it did in the ’80s. Most of the biggest “bnocs” (big names on campus) of the university are Union hacks and every member appears to take themselves extraordinarily seriously. It still functions as a platform for young people to deploy power play and to manipulate and over-politicise exchanges in a way that mimics national government. So it’s clear that while the culture of Oxford might be towards modernisation, the inherent purpose and premise of the university is not. 

I am a member of the Oxford Uni Labour Club for one reason, which is they run an event every Friday called “Beer and Bickering”. The idea is you pay a few quid entry, cheaper if you’re a member, and pretty much have as many drinks as you want while highly-strung student politicians debate topics like “Can we be proud of New Labour?” My friends and I go because it’s the cheapest pre-drink on a Friday night out. We sit in the same corner and get progressively more riled-up with each beer; the evening usually ends with one of us caving in and shouting at someone. The room is always almost entirely full of men, the sort I like to describe as “I’m a feminist but…” men, who have been known to say things like, “I don’t claim to know a single thing about the history of women in Labour.” One week the topic of abolishing private schools was debated and all but one of the speakers was a private-school boy; one opened his speech with “We all know that everyone in this room went to private school, and if they didn’t they went to grammar school,” to which I nearly spat my drink out. 

This may all sound rather bleak and hopeless, but I mention it because there is a fight-back. The people who speak at these things are no longer revered but often ridiculed and certainly not representative of the beliefs of the wider student body, even if politically aligned. Yes, Oxford as an institution is still, and may always be, archaic, and yes, the Oxford Union and student politics still function to prepare our next batch of corrupt MPs, and yes, the state school issue is still nowhere near resolved. However, there is a palpable change in attitudes. No longer are the Union types feared – instead they are quite widely seen to be embarrassing. Being rich, at least at my college, is another cause of embarrassment, due to the obvious class and privilege divides in the student body and between friends. While the institution itself may not be changing, I really believe the student body is. I don’t delude myself into thinking the tradition of Oxford producing the ruling class will be radically overthrown any time soon, and nor do I believe the archaic traditions of this university are likely to be reformed. I do believe that year by year and generation by generation, the zeitgeist of student life is changing, and for the better.

 

Lily Webb is a second-year student of English Literature at the University of Oxford

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