The media need to change their portrayal of Oxbridge

Image credit: Toronto International Film Festival

When applying to university, state-school students have a checklist of three requirements that an open day must meet in order for them to be convinced that an establishment is worth applying to.  Firstly, they must be greeted at the train station like a member of the royal family and be shepherded to the university campus.  Secondly, they must be presented with anything but what they would be doing on a day-to-day basis in favour of being wowed by weird,  wacky academics and by ‘show and tell’ like subject introductions.  And thirdly?  Under absolutely no circumstances can there be any croquet lawns, garden parties, boaters or Laura Ashley print dresses within a hundred miles of the campus.

Or so the writer of a recent article entitled ‘Why don’t state schools apply to Oxbridge’ seems to think.

Croquet is apparently a big no-no for state-school applicants.  Image credit: Ryan Hyde.

In the piece the writer recounts her experience of taking her state-educated seventeen year old around the Cambridge open day just over a month ago. It is perfect evidence of the media’s on-going obsession with Oxbridge privilege,  a flawless example of the sensationalism, exaggeration and overstatement (note: not lies) with which the media treat any Oxbridge-related story.

It’s sensationalism that I’ve regrettably got first hand experience of having promulgated myself, for which I am sorry and from which I won’t try to excuse myself.  What I will do, however, is say that it is that very experience that taught me this: that the writer, like me, would have been far more effective in achieving her apparent aims if she had kept her mouth shut, rather than painting a picture of Cambridge University using as few and as selective details as possible.

Why? Because even if her protestations that Cambridge colleges host ‘regular’ 1950s style drinks parties on lawns for blazer and Laura Ashley-clad guests were true (yes, I am aware of the irony of what I’m saying) and especially if they are so intimidating to state-school applicants, then broadcasting their existence on a national newspaper where a generation of potential state-school Oxbridge applicants can read about them is not the way to change the status quo.

However, it is a fail-safe way of putting one more nail in the coffin for work by university access officers.  They already have the burden of changing an image that’s hundreds of years old.  It’s an Oxbridge fact reported more widely than even the results of the Boat Race (and seen most recently in The Times’ coverage of student loans) that the elitist, privileged image of Oxbridge is something that deters some potential applicants even faster than the prospect of a Saturday morning 9am lecture, and that needs to change.  

Numbers of state-school and ethnic minority students are on the rise; something the media conveniently ignore, just as they ignore the tremendous amount of effort put in by access programmes.  Now, as well as newspapers having decided to continue spreading the privilege-steeped image of Oxbridge, in September we can look forward to it making its first appearance on the big screen in the film adaptation of Laura Wade’s Bullingdon-inspired play 'The Riot Club'.

It has prostitutes, champagne, grand country houses and every tabloid journalist’s dream: a boisterous young Oxford student in white-tie standing on a chair bellowing ‘I am sick to death of poor people!’  In fact, the trailer for the film alone reinforces more stereotypes than The Daily Mail could manage in a month.

Dr Jamie Castell, Outreach Officer at Hertford College, Oxford has already told the Oxford university paper Cherwell that such presentations of Oxbridge “reinforce certain inaccurate stereotypes about this University” and that these, in particular are “class, privilege and money.”

The Independent Voices article I’m referring to is guilty of the exact same reinforcement of inaccurate stereotypes, even if she did see the worst possible side of Oxbridge during what sounds like a pretty horrendous visit.  But more importantly, the writer has also missed the point of Oxbridge.  She recounts how, at other university open days, her daughter was ‘inspired’ by courses in children’s literature, the folios of Shakespeare and innovative academic approaches.  In comparison, she found the Cambridge English Faculty ‘disappointing’.

If you need the folios of Shakespeare to feel inspired, maybe you should consider studying elsewhere.  Image Credit: The British Library.

The writer claims that the course explanation and poetry analysis session was so dull that it gave the impression that the university was so oversubscribed that it didn’t care whether her daughter applied or not and is disgruntled by how literature from ‘other cultures’ is only studied during ‘one term in the final year’.  She clearly wasn’t listening when the course director explained that her daughter would be expected to take a literature in a foreign language paper for the first two years of the course.   

Of course, her daughter was right to expect to be inspired by our open day.  But she should also have expected a realistic insight into the place she was considering calling home for three years.  If she needs renowned Shakespeare professors to perform backflips and cartwheels in order to engage her attention then the simple truth is that Oxbridge simply isn’t the place for her.  And I know.  I sat in what was probably the same room in 2010 and listened to the same course explanations and analysed the same poems.   And I was mesmerised.

The opportunity for self-led, self-motivated and, crucially, self-inspired study is what an Oxbridge education is all about.  Cambridge obviously doesn’t want to give students the impression of ‘Come if you like.  Don’t if you don’t.  Whatevs’.   What the admissions office, access officers and open days  want to do is entice the students who will feel at home here and who will actively seek out their own cartwheels and backflips to inspire them rather than expecting someone else to do it for them.

I hope the writer and her daughter think about that as they go about choosing a university, and I hope they realise that there’s often more to a place than meets the eye.  Yet more than anything else, as the premiere of The Riot Club looms and the media’s fascination with the Oxbridge world of privilege reaches its peak, I hope everyone starts to see through these over-exaggerated portrayals and continues trying to change them, rather than perpetuate them.

Besides, there’s one inaccuracy in The Riot Club that sticks out more than any other.  At one point, a typically boisterous character takes a break from running around the Other Place and causing trouble to loudly exclaim ‘we’re at the best university in the world’.  

As anybody at Cambridge will tell you, that is just one false representation too many. 

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