‘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.

7 thoughts on “‘Change It From the Inside’ – The Problem with Oxford

  1. I think I’m an ‘opt outer’ on this one.

    I come from a south Wales family of three sons. We went to the same comprehensive school and all left with excellent grades. The eldest went to Cambridge where he, like Cerys, had a fairly tough time of it. At least as much due to the social issues described, as due to the academic rigour. The next two went to two very good universities, although not ‘world recognised’ (Bangor and Lancaster), and had a fantastic time for three years, as well as graduating with high quality degrees.

    I think there’s an unhealthy obsession with trying to coerce students to head to institutions which have hitherto demonstrated a high intolerance for individuals who don’t fit into the strange, class-based society which seems to operate at Oxford and Cambridge. Why should individual Welsh students suffer an unpleasant undergraduate experience in order to try to incrementally increase the pitiful levels of state pupils at these universities, when they have a wealth of other wonderful places to study – not just in the UK, but in the rest of Europe and the world?

    Let’s stop obsessing with the elites at Oxbridge and encourage our young people to enjoy the learning communities which not only provide them with a great education, but also a warm welcome.

  2. Cerys,

    Quite a brave thing to write and it strikes a chord. This is a marmite subject that divides opinions. I don’t think it is the job of our youth to try to change these institutions. If we have anyone who had the talent and strength of their personal convictions to do that, then I think a papal proclamation would be in order.

    I personally have no issues with the sheer awe and respect that Oxford and Cambridge generates in many different types of people and if someone has the talent and naturally wishes to show deference to these institutions then they will surely be successful in their careers.

    The concern that I have is that when something becomes so revered, then that reverence is not simply an expression of awe, but is often associated with personal feelings of shame and unworthiness for those personal traits and attitudes that are not respected by those institutions. When people involved in the Seren programme, or others, who have possibly been to Oxbridge start to project these negative feelings of shame back onto us in Wales, creating negative stereotypes then I have a real problem.

    Let’s change some of the precepts here. Let’s get more normal people into Oxbridge by all means, but not at any price and certainly not by overselling this proposition to our youth or by selling our collective soul to get there. Don’t use this subject as a stick to beat ourselves up over and certainly don’t allow the Diva personality of Oxbridge to diminish the achievements of the majority of our students who achieve superb and often superior education elsewhere.

  3. Good well written story from Cerys. My feeling is that an important aspect of a successful time, at any university let alone Oxbridge, is ‘parental’ support. Cambridge, in particular, is quite difficult to get to and from a home in Wales by road or rail. Although Oxford is somewhat easier being on the A40 it still feels like a different planet and an expensive one at that.
    I have worked in both cities and can appreciate the ‘culture’ shock that both places impose. Many problems can be mitigated for students if their parents can understand this and can afford to help. This basically means parents must not only be able to stump up for the fees, rent deposits, books, living expenses etc etc but provide moral, emotional and social support throughout the term. Too often the bright young thing is dropped at the bus/train station and waved off with a see you in x months. This is daunting for most people even those full of social confidence.
    Incidentally, is it true that Oxford is one of the murder capitals of the UK or have I been watching too many Inspector Morse episodes?

  4. Why all this talk of Oxford must change?

    Rather, I would like to see change amongst Cerys and her ilk. Go to Oxford by all means but then do something useful after the experience. Bring about positive change in and amongst your own community, break down the silly prejudices, show the ills of entrenched thinking, praise the merits of improving education and private education in particular, destroy the myth of a Celtic Wales which perpetuates some form of nonsensical difference, encourage ‘poshness’ as a form of improved civilisation, and above all get others to view the sadness of your modern day Wales as abnormal, unacceptable and far from the ‘norm’.

    To put it another way, do everything you possibly can to show others that there is nothing to be feared from ‘betterment’, individual and societal.

  5. I’ll always remember an interview the BBC did with a “high-flying” Cambridge student from an English private school in a documentary about the Oxbridge institutions.

    “To be honest” he said thoughtfully “I don’t think the standard of education here is that high. My experience is that the Red Brick Universities probably give a higher overall standard of education. What Oxbridge gives you is conections. That’s not good enough!”

    If you get a degree in physics (for example) from any of the top fifty or even hundred it makes very little, or even no practical difference, at all. Einstein got his PhD from Zurich not Oxbridge.

  6. Temperament matters and Oxbridge doesn’t suit everyone. But this discussion treats Oxbridge as one place. There are over 30 different colleges at both Oxfrod and Cambridge. There is a very different culture and a different social mix in the different colleges. Some have a public school atmosphere and style while others don’t. It makes a big difference which college you are in. Check the proportion of state school kids and the proportion of women in the college you are considering. A high proportion of both is a good sign. It does help to have a bit of self-confidence, though. People everywhere tend to take you at your own valuation.

  7. Chris Jones said
    “Incidentally, is it true that Oxford is one of the murder capitals of the UK or have I been watching too many Inspector Morse episodes?”

    You should watch Hinterland – puts me off Aber !

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