Being a student has made me see Oxford in a new light

24 March 2014

I have a confession to make: I go to my hometown university.

The decision to stay in Oxford is one I often feel I have to justify. When people learn that my parents live a 30 minute walk from my college, I get an ‘Oh, cool’. It’s in that tone that I imagine might also be prompted by someone telling you, while wearing flares and flashing trainers, that they maintain a shrine to Peter Andre.

I am, evidently, thoroughly lacking in a sense of adventure. Unimaginative and insufficiently independent, I am bound to be missing out on the full ‘university experience’.

And I am missing out on some things. There are no surprises at the end of cobbled streets. No getting lost on the way back from clubs in freshers’ week. No chance to leave my adolescence behind – on every visit to one of Oxford’s historic pubs, I think not of how Bill Clinton ‘didn’t inhale’ or that Tolkien and the Inklings used to meet here, but of that time my school friends and I got kicked out, aged 16, for adding Vodka to our Cokes from an Evian bottle.

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Maybe it’s surprising, then, that my decision wasn’t an unusual one: at my school, more people in my year applied to Oxford than Cambridge.

So what made us do it? Growing up in a city with the university on every corner, it’s tough not being a part of it. All of Oxford’s best bits are accessed by University swipe card, and we wanted in. We’d walk past the colleges, peek through the windows of Examination Schools and imagine working in the Radcliffe Camera. Every October, at precisely moment when the novelty of the new school year was turning to tedium, we’d envy the incoming students in their gowns.

I didn’t feel that I’d ‘done’ Oxford after living there for 18 years, because, without being a student there, you can’t. It would have felt unadventurous not to take the chance to explore my city as it’s meant to be explored.

But I’m living in college. Why didn’t I join the 27% of British undergraduates staying at home while they study? I would have saved, by the University’s estimation, £8,100 a year, while enjoying a full laundry service and my mum’s cooking.

Logistically, it would only have been as inconvenient as going to one of the less central colleges: on a bike, 10 minutes to my faculty library, my tutorials and my lectures. If I’d kept it to a bare minimum, I would only have spent 70 minutes commuting a week.

And that’s exactly why I didn’t do it. I had four-and-a-half contact hours a week last term – if I was living at home, that’s all I’d be coming in to town for. I’d miss out on the cups of tea in friends’ rooms, cooking dinner with my corridor and the too-late late-night chats. There’s no space for spontaneity if you’re on your own, a bike ride away.

If I was from any other city, I think I would’ve wanted to get away from my hometown too. But Oxford’s different: when you live in a university town, you’re going to consider going to the university. When it’s one of the best universities in the world, why would you go anywhere else?

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  • Swanky

    Is this the column where a privileged barely-out-of-Mary-Janes child-of-someone gets to squeak about what it is to live in the lap of privilege? I thought that The Spectator was somewhat valuable ‘fifth’ estate. I guess not.

    Is this sour grapes? You betcher. At the very least I’d like to hear from a grown-up.

    • gerontius

      “Let’s hear from Pippa Middleton on how ping-pong is better than skiing
      because your buns look so much better in a short skirt than a snowsuit.”

      Well mine certainly do, but really Swanky, you’re being a trifle acerbic today.

      • Swanky

        It’s the freedom to be acid at times that keeps me sane.

        • gerontius

          fair enough

  • HJ777

    Well, I was completely different.

    I didn’t want to go anywhere that was close to home. Not because I was desperate to get well away from home but because if I was going away, I decided I would do so properly – I didn’t want to be one of those students who was nipping home all the time. That ruled out Oxford and it also made me reluctant to go to Cambridge – a decision reinforced by the fact that when I, having gone to an ordinary comp, went to Cambridge for an interview, I was shown round by a student who had got into the college (Selwyn) with two ‘E’s at A level because his school had always had a number of reserved places. I was not impressed (this was quite a few years ago and I’m sure than no longer happens).

    So I applied to universities a long way away like Warwick, Durham and St. Andrews. I went to Durham (University College) and have never regretted it. It did me good to experience not only university in what is surely the most beautiful of all university cities (and the most spectacular college, I might add) but also a completely different part of the UK. I have had an affinity with the North of England and its people ever since – despite the town/gown separation and the deprivation in the area at the time, none of my college friends nor I ever experienced anything but friendliness from the locals even though we might have been seen as privileged. It’s the same when I go back – Durham people just love you for going there and for returning.

    You miss out on such experience when you go to your local university.

  • eaglegray

    I’m Canadian, and Oxford is one of my very favourite places to visit when I travel to England. Love the culture, the concerts, the Ashmolean (and its ‘cream teas’), and I always take in the amazing Chapel choir services. I’m an older chap, so forgive me if I offer you a bit of advice: It is natural when you have grown up in Oxford, or really anywhere in England, to take for granted all your wonderful, ancient traditions, buildings, and cultural treasures. But I urge you to try always to appreciate what you have in these things. Those of us in the ‘New World’ have nothing comparable— nothing (or very little) to give us a sense of history, of continuity— and many of us are quite envious of what you have.

    • Kitty MLB

      Thank you, what a very gracious post from you Sir, from Canada
      with its delightful people, stunning scenery and grizzly bears.
      We do indeed have so much in the way of historical treasures and they are
      not always appreciated, especially by those not interested in history and culture- we do live in a somewhat shallow world now. I have relatives is Bath ( I hope you have visited that
      place also) and yet they hardly notice their surroundings.
      I hope people here reading your post will take notice and appreciate more,
      and we will welcome you on your next trip… Hope the weather will keep up.

      • eaglegray

        Yes, I’ve also been to Bath, many years ago. It’s a beautiful town, with all its white buildings, the Abbey, and the Roman baths. Now you have reminded me that’s another place I want to re-visit. All the best.

    • gerontius

      You in your turn have things that I envy Eaglegray.
      My uncle left London as a young man and spent his life farming on the shores of Lake Ontario. Foolishly I never visited, but my younger brother did and the tales he came back with were wonderful and the photographs ravishing.

      Cambridge is better by the way!

      • eaglegray

        I just want to add, I really love Cambridge as well. How could anyone not be in awe of King’s Chapel, Trinity College, the Fitzwilliam— the university of greats like Newton, Byron, Darwin, Keynes, Russell et al. In fact, ‘Oxbridge’ are my two favourite places in England. Btw, my hometown is Oakville, on Lake Ontario, not far from Toronto.

        • HJ777

          Clearly, you haven’t visited Durham then!

      • HJ777

        Cambridge is too flat. I lived there and that is why it lacks great views.

        • Kitty MLB

          Its fine whilst a student, you do not want too many hills to climb
          after a late night. You are right about the views, some
          of us love hills and mountains which is why Scotland is a beloved ( and she’s not getting her freedom )

          • HJ777

            Scotland already is free and so are Scots, but wouldn’t be if Salmond and his cronies get their way. You only have to look at the way he treats the Holyrood parliament with such contempt just because he has a majority.

            • Kitty MLB

              He is mad who trusts the tameness of the wolf.
              That deluded ballooned ego of self esteem could quite easily be Scotland’s downfall. He thinks we are absolutist but that actually applies to Mr slippery Salmond and his dreams
              of a land full of milk and honey and he is appealing
              to the lowest common denominator. Heaven can only
              know where this will all lead if that ego gets a majority.

              • eaglegray

                Yes, hurray for that view. I totally agree. And, as I said before, my family is originally from Scotland, but I for one have always identified myself (ethnically) as British. I just can’t understand the mentality of any Scot who would want to separate him or herself from Britain. We are (were, in my case) all part of this island, all Britons. Why would anyone want to be something smaller? If I lived in Scotland, I would want to feel (and I do now!) just as at home in Durham or Brighton as I do in Glasgow or Edinburgh.
                I hope to god there is a No vote. And my bet is there will be.

        • Swanky

          It lacks great views because you lived there?

    • HJ777

      You might also enjoy visiting Glasgow and specifically the university. The Canadian parliament is essentially a close replica of the main building of Glasgow University (which is itself the second largest Gothic revival building in the UK after the Houses of Parliament)

      • eaglegray

        I agree. Interestingly, I have actually been to Glasgow (and Edinburgh, as well) as I am of Scottish heritage. And as for Durham, it is a place I have not visited, but has long been on my list to go. I enjoy the charm of the Geordies I’ve known, and have always wanted to see Durham Cathedral.

        • HJ777

          Do go to Durham. Go by train – I did for my interview over 30 years ago. The view from the station is one of Europe’s greatest cityscapes (if not the greatest). I knew at that moment where I wanted to go to university.

          Don’t just visit the cathedral – also visit University College (which is almost adjacent) but do check out tour times in advance (you cannot just walk in on your own on account of the fact that it is a working college) which are are at different times depending on whether it is term time or during vacations. You can actually book a room to stay in the college during vacations – you will enjoy breakfast in the Great Hall.

          It is worth allowing a full day to walk around Durham and the university

          • eaglegray

            Thanks everyone for your tips. Now I’m all fired up for another trip to Blighty.

            • HJ777

              Visit Lincoln too – which has the other candidate for England’s finest Cathedral and finest setting.

        • Kitty MLB

          And I hope you have visited Stratford Upon Avon.
          You must visit Durham Cathedral, it is enchanting.

  • dmitri the impostor

    ‘When it’s one of the best universities in the world, why would you go anywhere else?’

    One struggles to know where to begin. Because it is the home of PPE and therefore acts as the magnet for every tadpole politico on the make? Because it is also the nursery for Beeboids, Guardianista loudmouths, human rights lawyers, ack-taws and writers’ writers’ writers? In fact for every baleful attention-seeking profession on the planet?

    I’ll keep this brief as even I draw the line at putting the boot into teenagers. Your column is uninformative and banal. Readers who went to Oxford have nothing to learn and/or do not wish to be reminded. Readers who did not go to Oxford deserve not to be patronised and are entirely within their rights not to give a thrupenny bit. In short, learn something useful before you presume to teach.

    • whs1954

      I agree with you in wishing the author would just get a diary and spare us the “insights”, but the first paragraph is a load of old tripe. Oxford is one of the best universities in the world and anyone who’s good enough would be bloody stupid not to want to go. You get BBC hacks, political hacks, Guardian hacks, wannabe writers and lawyers graduating from every university in the country, not just Oxford.

      • dmitri the impostor

        With respect, your response is slightly overwrought. First, the operative expression is ‘one of’. There are numerous universities of comparable academic stature, particularly on the science and engineering side, to which first rate people can and do go, frequently because they are turned off by the social snobbery of Oxford. Neither did I claim that Oxford was the exclusive feeder to the attention-seeking professions but in numerous cases (e.g. HOC front bench, human rights bar), it would require an audit of at least five minutes duration to prove that it was the main feeder on a per capita basis. Although I’ll grant that the Cambridge Footlights also has quite a lot to answer for as well.

  • Jean de Valette

    I did my A-levels in Oxford before going up and so I can semi-relate. It was astonishing to me how the same city was suddenly and drastically an altogether different place once I went up as an undergraduate. Oxford really is two cities, one of which is invisible to non-members of the University.

  • ADW

    I am groaning under the weight of the insights on offer here. What did you, and more to the point the Spectator, think we might learn from reading this? Or have I missed something?

  • Frank

    I have no wish to be rude, but please consider growing up a bit more before you burden us with your fascinating insights.

    • Lord Dench

      I agree. While I’m soon going to be starting the same degree at Oxford as she is currently doing come October, and find it interesting from that point of view, I don’t get why she doesn’t just get a diary.

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