The other night the BBC aired ‘Young, Bright and on the Right’. It was a documentary that followed two eccentric, nerdy Oxbridge students as they climbed the political ladder of the two elite Universities. As I watched it made me feel suspicious that they were living in a huge Oxbridge sized bubble. It seemed like they had entirely forgotten what the real world was like. They wore suits with handkerchiefs (whatever the occasion), they had black 1930’s umbrellas; they drank port and discussed political tactics whilst admiring their Margret Thatcher screen savers. Yes, really. I also noticed, whilst I watched these two young ‘chaps’ go to their various committee meetings, political debates and (obviously) port drinking evenings, that there was seemingly little variety of people. I spotted 2 women and one Indian man, the rest- I’m assuming-were white upper class men.
But is this fair? Although the BBC is famed for its firm view on fair and balanced broadcasting, it did all seem a bit stereotypical. Surely these two men were just caricatures of the type of people we expect to attend the two Universities and not a fair representation of their real student body?
Well, I thought I’d find out. I asked a Cambridge student, Carolyn, for the answers.
She disagrees with the stereotype of Oxbridge students being entirely posh and white. ‘You do get a good mix of back grounds, around 60% are from state schools. There is an equal male/female ratio but there isn’t as big a variety of ethnicities as I’m used to-but you do get a lot of international students’
In fact, currently there are around 1,200 overseas students from over 120 countries studying at the University of Cambridge.
However, it does seem that some aspects of Cambridge live up to the stereotype.
‘Cambridge seems to take the philosophy that they will take care of things as much as possible so you can focus on studying. It has very short, intense terms compared to most other universities, so you don’t always have as much free time as your friends elsewhere. All colleges include cleaning in your room rent, and I hear they even do your laundry for you at Emmanuel College. The University also doesn’t let you have a job during term time; you actually don’t have time anyway.’
‘There is something called a formal dinner colleges put on a few times a week, where you wear gowns- it’s really just an excuse to get drunk!’ When asked about the port rumours Carolyn said ‘Society talks always have port and orange juice beforehand’
‘There’s definitely a bubble, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. I just find myself using words like “velocity” or “suboptimal” a lot, and having arguments about things in my subject. Kind of geeky, but everyone’s a lot less shy about it here’
Although tradition is still a major part of Cambridge’s identity, that doesn’t necessarily mean that its student body is stuck in a time warp. Its equal male/female ratio and its large network of international students mean that no longer is Oxbridge simply a place for privileged Eton boys, but rather for the world’s most intelligent students.
The Universities policy of ‘no jobs allowed’ and cleaning being included in rent does seem a bit 18th century, granted. You can almost imagine there being a cloak and top hat cupboard in every dorm. But this doesn’t reflect the student body itself, but rather the university’s decisions and its seemingly obsessive need to maintain tradition- the same rigid tradition that results in our judges wearing wigs and gowns.
The BBC documentary could potentially have set back Oxbridge’s progress to widen its access to all students, by creating the impression that it is full of socially awkward toffs, alienated from the real world. It seems that Oxbridge is growing into a much more diverse and equal place than it is being given credit for; home to some of our brightest students, even if they do have unusual port habits.
I haven’t had a chance to speak to anyone from Oxford, but if anyone has any information on how Oxford students differ from Cambridge students, please drop a comment!