‘Change It From the Inside’ – The Problem with Oxford

Cerys Howell provides a candid account of her experience of Oxford and some sage advice for anyone considering applying

I wasn’t starry-eyed about Oxford. I didn’t like it when I went for interview. I found it stuffy, cold and alienating. I cried when I came out of my interview, and I was convinced that I had been there as some kind of experiment.

Oxbridge Series

This week on Click on Wales we take a look at the Welsh experience of Oxbridge.
You can read the full series here


But I did feel tremendously privileged when I was accepted, and I wasn’t sure I would get the same academic advantages anywhere else, so I decided to go.

I found the entire experience totally bewildering. I couldn’t connect with the culture. I didn’t understand their jokes, and they didn’t understand mine. The posh “lad” culture, in which racism and sexism are thrown around casually and presented as “banter”, was nauseating and relentless. I found private school kids both incredibly arrogant, and amazingly naïve.

The 2-on-1 tutorials were, for someone with little confidence in their academic ability, incredibly intimidating. I struggled to participate, and found myself zoning out and falling behind. I avoided my work, and drank to escape from feelings of low self-confidence and alienation, which only made things worse. If it hadn’t been for a small group of close, like-minded friends who were also struggling, I’m not sure I would have made it.

I think Welsh students are right to be instinctively suspicious. Oxford and Wales are two different worlds. In fact, Oxford and any ordinary, state school environment are two different worlds. But if you’re from one of the Celtic nations, there’s a whole other layer of prejudice to contend with. I wasn’t someone who took jokes about the Welsh, made by smug English aristocrats, very well, because I sensed there was malicious intent behind them, and a genuine feeling of superiority.

Tanya Gold wrote in the Guardian that Oxford “needs to be stuffed full of normal.” That’s exactly what it would take to be accessible for state school pupils.

Having said all that, there are working-class students who go to Oxford and love it.  They find it all a huge novelty, and love dressing in gowns and joining in. And there’s no doubt the teaching is excellent. By the time I got to my third year and stopped worrying so much about my ability, I felt very lucky to have regular access to my brilliant tutors.

I don’t think opting out is the answer. There’s no reason Welsh students should be excluded from one of the highest quality academic experiences in the world just because Oxford doesn’t cater for them. One of the only ways in which Oxbridge will truly change is if “normal” pupils go, and change it from the inside.

So I would advise any Welsh student who thinks they have a chance of getting in to apply. Nothing can really prepare you for it, but if you do go, remember the following: don’t be too disdainful (as I was), but don’t be dazzled either. Keep a clear head. Find friends you can trust. Don’t let yourself believe you’re inferior. (You’re not. If you got in from a state school, it probably means you’re more clever than them.) Speak to your tutors if you’re having problems. Spend more time in the library than the bar. And visit home regularly so you stay connected with the real world. Because Oxford sucks you in for three years, and then spits you back out again.

Cerys Howell studied English at Wadham College, Oxford (2006-2010). She is now a third year PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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