Oxbridge applicants shouldn’t despair if they did not “get in” this week. For me, Balliol was an academic cul-de-sac

balliol

Balliol College, Oxford: I made great friends there, but the course I studied closed minds rather than opened them

Over the next few days thousands of young people will  be watching their doormats, and email inboxes, with dread. From January 7th onwards Cambridge University – and from January 9th onwards Oxford – will be letting applicants know if they have “got in” or not. Those who hear they have not “got in” – more than 75% of the 35,000 who applied – may be disheartened. Don’t be.

At first you’ll feel like a political football. Just as predictable as Turkey sandwiches is another post-Christmas ritual: the annual Oxbridge admissions post-mortem. Every January politicians and journalists line up to accuse Oxford and Cambridge universities of elitism, and Oxbridge responds with retaliatory accusations of political correctness and dumbing-down.

As the proportion of Oxbridge students from state schools increases very slowly, if at all, both universities have grown increasingly defensive and argue that it’s not their job to increase social mobility: they are there to admit the best applicants regardless of what school they went to. Oxford’s website states proudly that it’s “committed to recruiting the best candidates, irrespective of their age, colour, disability, ethnic origin, marital status, nationality, national origin, parental status, race, religion or belief, gender, sexual orientation, social background or educational background”. But behind these silky words lurks a harsher rhetoric from the bigwigs who run the universities. Every year Oxford grandees say that it’s not their fault that the statistics change so slowly: back in 2006 Professor Alan Ryan, then Warden of New College Oxford, even said that the problem was not that selective schools coach applicants, but that schools weren’t selective enough.

In 2008, when the Labour government set demanding targets for state-school admissions to Oxbridge, Alison Richard, then Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, lambasted the government for trying to turn universities into “engines for promoting social justice” (something that all good universities should be, some observers replied). Oxford’s Chancellor – the supposedly liberal Tory Lord Patten – was even more scathing:  universities “should not be treated – or behave themselves – like local social security offices”, he thundered. In 2011, the editor of Oxford Today magazine Richard Lofthouse argued that Oxford “cannot be expected to mend inequalities that are deeply rooted in society,” prompting lots of angry letters from alumni, me included.

I don’t wish to deny the efforts made to encourage more state school pupils to apply, and to make their applications more likely to succeed. Since I studied at Oxford 20 years ago there’s been some progress to make the University more representative: the proportion of Oxford  students who had gone to British independent schools fell from 46% in 1993 to 37.6% in 2013, while those from British state schools has increased from 40% to 45.9% (the remainder come from overseas). Cambridge does rather better: its statistics show that in 2013 61.4% of its students came from state schools (though this was down from the 63.3% achieved the year before). Tellingly, Mike Nicholson, who was Oxford’s director of admissions for eight years until 2013, is not an Oxford graduate himself and helped to overhaul the university’s admissions procedures in the wake of the hoo-ha over Laura Spence (the bright state school pupil with 10 A*s at GCSE who was nevertheless refused a place to study medicine at Oxford in 2000, much to Gordon Brown’s ire).

But it’s slow, halting progress. Again and again, Oxbridge sees itself as an ivory tower which should not have to grapple with the menial task of making higher education, and society, more accessible, fair and equal: that’s someone else’s job. They take it as read that three or four years studying at, and a good degree from, Oxford or Cambridge, are the apogee of academic success and this should not be sullied by politically-correct tinkering with their sacred admissions procedures.

Applicants are left understandably bemused: even if you did “get in”, it could be only because of the unfair advantage of a private education, or the unfair leg-up of positive discrimination.

But very few observers – either within Oxbridge or outside it – stop to question whether an Oxbridge education really is all it’s cracked up to be, and whether these two supposedly pre-eminent universities are delivering the education, and the graduates, the country needs.

*****

My own experience – I studied English at Balliol College, Oxford, from 1993 to 1996 – suggests that an Oxbridge education can be a curse rather than  a blessing. I fluked my way in via the Examination method (which my private school had coached me for, and which was abolished shortly thereafter). Having passed an entrance exam in the autumn of 1991, strictly speaking I only had to secure two Es at A Levels in the summer of 1992 to get in to the college (rather than A Levels I did the International Baccalaureate and got the equivalent of three Bs, a record of mediocrity that would continue).

It wasn’t a cloistered existence once I arrived at Balliol, after a year off, in the autumn of 1993. I learnt a lot about the world beyond its quads. Visitors included the wives of the striking Liverpool dockers, Michael Ignatieff (then on a fruitless search for peace in the Balkans), a young Labour frontbencher called Tony Blair (who gave me his card, which I lost before I could call him), and busloads of kids from inner city comprehensives who we would show round as part of the Target Schools programme. A backlash against the Bullingdon set was well underway – Balliol’s invitation-only, white tie dining club, the Annandale, was driven underground and no longer documented in the college’s annual report. Many of my friends spent a good deal of their time working at an East End project, the Stepney Children’s Fund, which had been associated with Balliol since Victorian times. My friends and I spent a lot of time marching, against a visit by Bill Clinton (I forget why) and for the closure of Campsfield, a grim Home Office detention centre a few miles out of town. I helped lead a “rent strike” in which we succeeded in stopping the college from raising our rents by 45%,  but also strived to ensure it wasn’t just postponed so future students would be hit.

But academically I found myself in a cul-de-sac. I soon discovered that what I really wanted to do – write satire, act, and agitate politically, as well as the usual drinking and getting to know the opposite sex – sat uncomfortably with the academic straitjacket I had placed myself in. The first year was dominated by Old English – in effect a foreign language which I found almost impossible to read, understand or translate. I flunked my first year exams – or Mods as they called – because I refused to attempt an Old English translation and wrote a short story, full of teenage angst, on the exam paper instead (apparently I was the first Balliol English student to fail Mods for sixty years  – a feat I was quite proud of). My Oxford days were more Lucky Jim than Brideshead Revisited.

Far from being an  enlightened collection of lefty intellectuals – Balliol is considered to be one of Oxford’s most “radical” colleges –  I found its Fellows to be stuffy, authoritarian and petty. I’m not normally paranoid but I felt that my card had been marked within a few weeks of arriving at the college. Early on, I asked a senior professor if there were any faculty lectures he could recommend. “Lectures? Lectures? Honestly Mister Grant, this isn’t some red-brick university where you get force-fed information at lectures. We value private study instead,” he replied. I didn’t ask again.

I  found that all my applications for book grants – a routine process that would yield undergraduates a few dozen pounds each term for books – were summarily refused. I once invited a noted environmentalist to come and speak to a group of students. Cheekily, this hater of the internal combustion engine faxed the college to ask if they could provide a parking space. The fax arrived in my pigeon hole with a snotty note informing me that the college’s fax machine was “not for the use of Junior Members” and ordering me never to receive correspondence on it again. Twenty years on, these things still rankle.

“There is nothing you need know, except Langland and Plato” went one of the satirical drinking songs me and my mates devised. In fact it wasn’t satire but reported speech: one of my tutors was a medievalist who genuinely thought that English literature had been downhill all the way since the 14th century. I once wrote an essay about Chaucer’s  Troilus and Criseyde which revealed that I thought Helen of Troy was Trojan – a silly howler that should have been laughed off by this tutor. Instead he said unlaughingly “but Helen was Greek”, followed by a long pause and lots of umming and ahing by me (actually Helen was technically Spartan – a rejoinder I wish I had the brilliance to come out with the time).

I found the second year – Shakespeare – and the third – Trollope, Dickens and Hardy – easier but I always longed to study architecture, history or politics, not literature. The Hardy novel that resonated most was Jude the Obscure, in which Jude receives a letter from the Dean of Biblioll college, Christminster (a thinly-disguised Balliol) telling him to “remain in your own sphere and [stick] to your trade”. Jude then finds a piece of chalk and writes the following quote from the Book of Job on the gate of Biblioll: “I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?”.

In our second year we were allocated new first year undergraduates to mentor, to whom we’d write letters over the summer holiday. Incredibly, a random sample would be steamed open by the college authorities to ensure we were on message, like letters home from the front in World War One.  As luck would have it my letter was one of those chosen and I was sternly informed that its frank description of the foibles of the subject tutors – two of whom had barely been on speaking terms for a decade or more – was potentially defamatory and my letter had been destroyed. Academic freedom of speech, anyone?

One tutor asked me just before my Finals whether I intended to sit them: he obviously thought I was  wasting my time. In the end, thanks to a very supportive girlfriend, I did a spurt of hard work in my third year and got a 2:1 degree. My results were followed by a note from my tutor informing me tartly that I had miraculously obtained the absolute minimum mark to qualify for a 2:1, implying that I was some kind of fraud. As usual,  one-upmanship (a word I use deliberately: the vast majority of Fellows were men) and intellectual snobbery were the order of the day.

Admittedly the college had been fully co-educational for a good decade by the time I got there. Curfews, and petty rules proscribing overnight visitors or requiring that gowns should be worn for tutorials or evening dinner, were already a thing of the past. Racism was unheard of (though any racism would find little outlet as shockingly, there were no black British, and only a few British Asian, students in my year). There was some sexism from Dons (of the relatively harmless “You look lovely today” variety) but this was mitigated by militant feminism in the Junior Common Room (where all students, male and female, paid a “Tampax Tax” with which the JCR bulk-bought sanitary products so Balliol women were no longer discriminated against because of their gender).

But though it’s less than 20 years since I left Balliol in many respects my time there seems almost Victorian. A hundred and fifty years after Hardy wrote Jude, not a lot had changed. Despite Balliol’s reputation for being left-wing and inclusive, half the students had gone to public schools as I had, and most of the other half were middle class sons and daughters of teachers who had gone to good state schools: genuinely working-class students could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

*****

With hindsight it’s obvious that I was out of my depth, reading the wrong subject and should have been given support to either change course, change university, or both. Instead I was made to feel like a failure. The more garbage I heard about the “effortless superiority” of Balliol men and women, the more inferior I felt.

The pressure to succeed socially and academically took its toll and I was once told that at least half of the women students in my year were on anti-depressants. At the time I thought this was self-indulgent but I now realise tragedy was unfolding under my nose. I only coped with my time at Balliol by giving up all hope of getting a top-class degree, playing up my academic mediocrity as a comic turn, and concentrating on having a good time instead. But inside I felt increasingly worthless as all around me other students seemed to have an even better time, excelling at sport, journalism or student politics (sometimes all three) while getting an excellent degree at the same time. I soon realised that I could only succeed in one sphere – having a good time and developing a wide circle of friends – many of whom I’m still in touch with to this day. Oxford’s frenetic pace – ludicrously, the academic year consists of three terms of just eight weeks – means that there is no time to find your feet, explore ideas or learn how to live independently at your own pace.

Life skills – how to manage your time, how to relate to people from different cultural backgrounds, how to network  – I’ve tried to pick up since I left Oxford as best I can. The academic staff I encountered had zero nurturing skills, and weren’t even that good at teaching. No connection was made between the curriculum and the modern world – a missed trick as the mid-1990s were filled with real-world events (ethnic strife in the Balkans, the ongoing troubles in Northern Ireland, the steady implosion of the Major government) which closely resembled medieval epic or Shakespearean tragedy. But the real world was left at the panelled door of my tutorials, each of which made me feel more like a dummy than the last.

From time to time I get phone calls from Balliol undergraduates asking me to contribute to the college’s Annual Fund. I politely inform them that a) whatever else it gave me, Balliol has not made me rich, b) I already sponsor a child in the third world and can’t afford other charitable commitments and c) even if I did have loads of cash to spare, giving it to an institution that has been accumulating wealth, power and influence for 750 years would be bottom of my list (I haven’t been blacklisted yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time).

There’s another more serious reason I refuse to hand over money. At Balliol in the mid-1990s there were generous student hardship funds – but they were handed out so arbitrarily then that I’m reluctant to swell their coffers now. Many people learnt how to get their credit card bills paid off but other deserving cases, too proud to ask for help, got nothing (this is not sour grapes from me: thanks to generous parents and student loans, I never had cause to ask).

Of course much of this woe was self-inflicted laziness and I don’t expect any sympathy now for having been a dysfunctional student 20 years ago. But these aren’t just witty anecdotes: they illustrate that Oxbridge was  – and in my view still is – woefully bad at telling students why they are studying Medieval epic, and how it can equip young people for the twenty-first century. Students who struggled academically, as I did, were all too often written off as dunces.

It was clear to me that in the mid-1990s – as we gradually realised that history had not come to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Balliol’s new Internet Institute began to digest what a new invention called the World Wide Web might mean – Oxford was still resting complacently on its laurels.

*****

Going back, as I do every five years or so, is a curiously empty, underwhelming experience (although Balliol is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, it’s far from the prettiest). Three years ago I went back to a Gaudy (reunion dinner) there. Of my contemporaries – 99% of whom are white like me – one was a new mother with a baby a few weeks old. She was forced to sit in a side room as the rest of us had dinner in Balliol’s grand Hall (lord knows what would have happened if she had needed to breastfeed).  As we drank fine wines by candlelight, ate our free meal off Balliol china and enjoyed after-dinner mints imprinted with the Balliol crest, we were asked to dig deep in our pockets and donate whatever we could to the college. My partner – a non-Oxbridge graduate – was speechless.

Smugness pervaded. The after-dinner speeches told us that of the 1991-1993 intake there had since been 13 inter-Balliol marriages, at least 10 “true blood Balliol” children, 2 OBEs, 1 MBE and two MPs elected (Rory Stewart, a thoughtful Tory who chairs the Defence Select Committee, being one). Other success stories – Claire Marshall has presented Countryfile with John Craven, and Raj Patel (an authority on global food policy) who had been hailed as the “next messiah” – were also namechecked. But the biggest achievements were strangely overlooked.  We were told that the outgoing Master Andrew Graham had apparently been elected Balliol’s Master in the last 1990s because a speech he had given to matriculating students in 1992 had gone down particularly well (nothing to do with his work as Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan’s young economic adviser in the 1970s, of course: Graham’s an impressive man, from a humble Cornish background, and much more genuine than most other Fellows I’ve met). Another recent Balliol master, the late Baruch Blumberg, was a seriously eminent scientist but was always looked at askance by arty types (Balliol’s last scientist Master had been an alchemist in the fourteenth century, a joke ran).

Balliol, we were told by one after-dinner speaker, had chosen people not because of who they were when they left school but who they might become. But in fact the speeches all looked backwards, not forwards. And this particular Balliol man has become profoundly sceptical about the value of an Oxford education. In my day lateral thinking, originality and inter-disciplinary collaboration were actively discouraged. Pastoral support to students was hit and miss – mostly miss. There was a lot of intellectual excitement, but all of it outside the lecture theatres and tutorial rooms.

As for the old boys’ network, an Oxbridge degree only opens doors if you’re arrogant enough to brag about it in front of people snobbish or gullible enough to listen and take heed. While being a Balliol graduate hasn’t harmed my career in politics and journalism, it has ‘t helped much either: at 41 I’m still looking for what I want to be.  Most good universities will give their students some idea of a career path at 21, but Oxford did not even try to give me one. My older brother – who applied to both Oxford and Cambridge without success – went on to get a first from another excellent university, Bristol, and then became a barrister (he was made a QC two years ago, aged just 42). He has much more intellect, and earning potential, than I ever will without having spent a day studying at Oxbridge.

****

Britain today is a place where cherished institutions – the BBC, our newspapers, armed forces and Parliament – are undergoing huge changes. Oxford and Cambridge would claim to have undergone huge changes as well: the huge growth of foreign students, more and more scrutiny from the funding councils, and an admissions process that regularly becomes a political football. But once you “get in” to Oxford and Cambridge colleges you discover a complacency and stuffiness that’s hard to find in any other British institution (bar, possibly, the Royal Family).

Along with a seat in the House of Lords, leading lights of the British establishment can look forward to another retirement gift: becoming the Master or Warden of Oxbridge colleges, largely unaccountable institutions which to this day have millions of acres of landholdings. Back in the 1870s it took a demonstration by thousands of local people to stop Queen’s College Oxford from enclosing Plumstead Common, removing their grazing rights and building houses all over it. A century on, not much has changed. When Brent Council closed Kensal Rise library in 2011 and its Victorian building reverted to the ownership of All Souls’ College, Oxford, its first act was to sell it to a developer for conversion to flats. It’s taken a determined local campaign to keep part of the building as a community library.

Oxford and Cambridge aren’t always the most difficult universities to get into these days: many other universities have more applicants per place on some courses.  Nor are they necessarily the most  academically rigorous, innovative or well-respected in research terms: by several measures Imperial College, LSE and St Andrew’s are superior to Oxford and Cambridge. Even Mark Damazer, the ex-BBC mandarin who’s now Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford  – someone who you would expect to evangelise about the place – wrote in the New Statesman recently that the importance of an Oxford degree is hugely overrated. “It is sad if you feel getting in will be the greatest achievement of your life and even sadder if you feel that not getting in is an unmitigated catastrophe. There are many other fine places to study and your life options don’t close at 18,” Damazer wrote. He’s right: I still regret not taking up my “second choice” in 1993, studying architectural history at the University of Edinburgh, to which I would have been much better suited.

I should have shunned Oxbridge and gone somewhere more enlightened. Institutions that see their continued existence as an end in itself, not a means to an end, are dead places. I don’t despise Balliol by any means, but my great memories derive from the friends I made, not the institution that housed us. Apart from that I just have a pile of plagiarised old essays and lots of glossy letters from the college, demanding money.

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8 Responses to Oxbridge applicants shouldn’t despair if they did not “get in” this week. For me, Balliol was an academic cul-de-sac

  1. Anton says:

    What do you mean – “for me, Balliol was an academic cul-de-sac”?

    You say that “I soon discovered that what I really wanted to do – write satire, act, and agitate politically, as well as the usual drinking and getting to know the opposite sex – sat uncomfortably with the academic straitjacket I had placed myself in.”

    Duh?

    Are you really suggesting that’s Balliol’s fault and not yours?

    • Alex Grant says:

      Have just returned to this after a couple of years, and still don’t understand your question. My point is that having found myself out of my depth on my course, I found there was zero help and support to get the most out of it, or to change course. It’s not a question of “fault”.

  2. Phillip Helbig says:

    Helen of Tory? Will she be the next female UK Prime Minister? 🙂

  3. Margaret says:

    I began to read this with the sense that I would disagree (never a good way to approach a source, I know!). I had a fantastic time at Cambridge and almost everything about my experience was precisely what I needed in life as an 18-year-old.

    However, as I read on I found myself nodding along and agreeing, until it felt as if I had written the article myself. As a female state school student, I do not match your demographic, but it is reassuring to hear that there are men out there with the capacity to understand that what is still happening in Oxbridge is not good enough. I loved my course, but after leaving to pursue postgraduate study elsewhere I realised that the teaching I had had, far from being world-class, was really of pretty poor quality: good researchers do not necessarily make good teachers, and Cambridge suffers from this truism enormously. My PhD supervisor is one of the most active academics I know – he publishes widely, edits journals, is involved in larger projects, and supervises several other PhD students. He also finds time to teach undergraduate and Masters students, all without the inflated ego which I now increasingly recognise in my old tutors. It is my opinion that many (not all, but many) academics in Cambridge rest on their laurels. In the belief that their position means more than all the activity of academics in other universities, they stagnate in their own research and care little for those they are paid to teach.

    The problem is that they are safe, held in place by archaic systems. I hope I won’t sound too miliant if I point out that many of the worst offenders that I know are male, white and middle-aged or older. They aren’t going anywhere and they know it – but sadly, this has an impact on students. I learnt more in my one year of Masters study away from Cambridge than in all my years of undergraduate study, mainly because I was finally taken seriously. Female students at too many of the older colleges are not treated as if they are as capable as their male counterparts. In my own experience, I’ve been told to avoid certain research topics because ‘the boys will be better at that’ and my motivation for wanting to undertake doctoral research was questioned with disbelief – not because of a wanting academic record, but because I’m not ‘the type’ – I’m not male. There are far too many examples of everyday sexism which are still prolific throughout the colleges and faculties.

    I’m so, so glad I moved to an institution which has a 50:50 ratio of male:female academics. I’m so glad I now study in a place where I am expected to be the best I can be, not just almost as good as a bloke. I’m so glad I’m in an institution where my supervisor and other advisors have time for me and all their other students. I’m glad I’m cared about and known individually (something which, to be fair, my college was very good at, but the faculty very poor). Academically, moving away from Cambridge has been a big step up. I’ve opened my mind more and dared to approach topics that I was warned away from before. I’ve surprised myself with what I can achieve, and hope that I continue to do so. I did enjoy studying at Cambridge, but now I know what more I could have achieved, which is slightly disappointing. At least I can make up for lost time now!

    • Phillip Helbig says:

      “It is my opinion that many (not all, but many) academics in Cambridge rest on their laurels.”

      If one can rest on one’s laurels, one is wearing them on the wrong part of one’s body. 🙂

  4. Phil says:

    You were obviously doing completely the wrong degree; it’s a shame you couldn’t switch, although I believe Oxford is particularly inflexible on that front. When I was doing English at Cambridge (in the 80s) I knew several people who changed degrees, at stages ranging from the first week of the first term to the end of the second year. For what it’s worth I’ve had the impression several times over the years that Oxford is much more up itself than Cambridge; certainly at my college hardly anyone cared about Upholding Tradition, and those who did were a bit of a joke.

    But why on earth do you keep going back? I’ve been to one alumni event, and I think that was a five-year reunion – it was certainly a long time ago. I have stayed overnight in college a couple of times, but that was when my son was applying and I was giving him moral support (different subject, different college, much better A Levels – & he didn’t get in). The odd thing was that, staying one night in a guest room, I felt totally at home there – much more so that I ever remember feeling as a student. Perhaps it’s because I’m an academic myself now (different subject, very different university) – I felt for a few hours that I’d arrived.

  5. Pingback: The demise of Boris Johnson – the Quintin Hogg of our times – shows that the age of Balliol superiority is now over | Alex Grant

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