How to get the commoners in? That’s the question Oxford University spends £11m every year trying to answer - £3m annually on outreach activities in schools and sixth-form colleges, in addition to the £8m it spends on bursaries for needy students, the most generous system of undergraduate support for low-income students in the UK.
It would be interesting to know how much the university would need to spend to compensate for the reputational damage caused by the most recent flare-up, when one unnamed student from Corpus Christi College allegedly said 'oh, they’ve let the commoners in', referring to a group of secondary school students visiting the college as part of the ‘Oxford Pathways’ access program.
The British media remains hyper sensitive to stories insinuating Oxford elitism. Rightly so, in one important regard: 42.5 per cent of undergraduates arrive from private schools, in contrast to the seven per cent of students nationwide who attend them.
Oxford students no longer treat the outside world with hostility, to the extent that they ever did, because most of them come from it. Even those from private schools are not necessarily well heeled. A third of Oxford students receiving bursaries were schooled in the independent sector because many such schools have over the last decade developed generous bursary schemes of their own.
Instead hostility is being replaced by a casual flippancy. Nam Phuong Dinh, a Corpus first-year, told the student newspaper Cherwell that “I personally think that the person who said it might have meant it as an ironic joke although it does not make it justifiable, especially in that particular situation.”
It’s tough to see how a comment construed in such offensive terms can be defended on the basis of irony. Nor should whoever made the jibe have thought that a bunch of 14-year-olds overwhelmed by Oxford’s daunting dreaming spires would recognize the insincerity of this oh-so-witty wisecrack.
One student, commenting on the ‘Overheard in Oxford’ Facebook group, which boasts ten-and-a-half thousand members, said that ‘though the person that made the comment was probably a bit of an idiot’ the subsequent outrage demonstrated a ‘ludicrous and slightly hypocritical hyper-sensitivity’.
“I never saw an article written about my friend who was violently assaulted in Oxford on the basis of his wearing a tuxedo,” he added.
Access is a topic that all Oxford students talk about, but relatively few think deeply about. In the absence of any great left-wing cause célèbre – like the CND and anti-Apartheid student movements of the ‘80s - complaining about entrenched elitism is a lazy way for students to advertise their progressive credentials.
Relatively few are prepared to act on it. In competition with lucrative investment bank internship schemes, that is why Oxford colleges have to pay student volunteers to staff their summer open days.
Jonathan Goddard, a PPE student, attended a local state school before arriving at Oxford. At a matriculation dinner, a plated three-course meal, he was served by an old classmate. “It's not a question of feeling guilty or not,” Goddard said, “but it forces one to think about how the world is and how best to react to that.”
The flippant attitude that some Oxford students take to access derives from a culture of privilege, says Goddard.
“Where else in the country can you find places that look and feel like our colleges do? In stately homes, parliament and the law courts.” If you think about the people who inhibit those institutions, he says, “it’s not especially difficult to figure out why some students here sometimes say stupid things.”
But something more subtle and insidious is also at work.
Consider the language used by the university for its access initiatives: ‘outreach’, for instance. The tone implies its targets are victims, it treats ‘state school kids’ as a homogeneous victimized group. This allows the issue to be compartmentalized in people’s heads as something that doesn’t concern ‘us’. Access is then regarded as a large and unfathomable problem that only large unfathomable behemoths like the university and the government can tackle.
Whilst students will profess their affinity with and support for access initiatives therefore, the whole venture – like everything the university embarks on – falls victim to the sort of satire, irony and cynicism that leads to these ugly outbursts.
The vital qualification of course is that these outbursts only belong to a minority of students who are generally obnoxious and unpleasant characters anyway, but it’s a potent minority that persistently threatens to derail the university’s slow progress towards parity in admissions.
Tom Beardsworth is studying PPE at Brasenose College in Oxford. Follow him on Twitter here.