Oxford has traditionally been a place for the rich and privileged. Today its doors are open for all backgrounds, but a hint of the old culture still prevails.
The University of Oxford, England, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is also one of Britain’s most elitist and traditional universities – and also one of the most respected. Unlike most universities in Europe, Oxford is divided into several multidisciplinary Colleges.
Sarah Jacobs and James Rothwell, both studying languages in Wadham College, come from fairly normal backgrounds and state schools. Pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree, their whole degree depends on one week of final exams in the last year.
”There is an added pressure now in the final year, we’re being examined on things that we’ve studied over the course of three years. It’s stressful”, Jacobs explains.
Students in Oxford often need to write one or two essays a week, attend one-on-one tutorial sessions with their tutor teacher to discuss the essays, and also attend lectures and classes.
Jacobs says that she usually has about 15 contact hours a week. In addition, she uses one or two hours to prepare for each class, not counting the essay writing and reading books.
Extracurricular activities, balancing the study, are also very popular in Oxford. The students are not allowed to engage with paid jobs during the terms. Thus, many students spend a lot time with other student activities.
”There is just so much really awesome stuff to do, like a world-famous debate society, meeting famous people, student paper is really fun, and our student union”, Rothwell effuses.
”My friend just joined a laptop orchestra”, Jacobs adds.
For many students, extracurricular activities, whether they are sports or politics, are a way to find important contacts for future working life. Many also want to escape the small social circles of their colleges.
There are some notorious examples of drastic class division in Oxford. Perhaps the most famous of them is the Bullingdon Club. An exclusive rich society officially banned a long time ago still appears every now and then to cause havoc. The members of the society hold ostentatious dinners, and in the end they trash the place – and repay everything in cash. Most famous ex-member of the society is the current UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
Regardless of some infamous examples, Rothwell and Jacobs do not think there is overly much class tension in Oxford. Generous grant programmes make Oxford available for talented people even from poorer backgrounds.
There are some shadows, though:
”The top private schools are overrepresented in Oxford. There are some fabulously wealthy kids, and you rub shoulders everyday with people who have literally paid £ 30 000 a year for their education”, Rothwell explains.
Rothwell and Jacobs see themselves privileged for going to Oxford. As its most important benefits they see the contacts they have made, and the career opportunities they are given.
”The university helped me to get an internship with the UN”, Jacobs says.
Rothwell cherishes his invaluable contacts in journalism:
”I was given a chance to attend the press conference of Michelle Obama and meet all big pawns of journalism in the press gallery.”
Oxford degree is also a signal. Many employees may hire someone just because they attended the University of Oxford.
As a negative side both students mention the inflexibility of the study. Oxford is academically heavy and many degrees offer only little variation. Secondly, life in Oxford is stressful but not necessarily in a bad way.
”Part of the fun is the challenge”, Rothwell says.