Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Emma on Oxbridge

Oxbridge is always a pretty emotive subject. Regular readers will know I'm someone who went through a very different route into and through Higher Education than just doing A levels and straight university applications. But I have met plenty of academics and students (at postgraduate level) from Oxbridge and have been there many times for conferences and reading group meetings; I also know people at a deeper level of friendship who studied there (G successfully did his undergrad there; C initially started her postgraduate research there before realising it was completely the wrong place for her). I respect both those experiences and recognise the nuances of discomfort, performance and participation that each of them entailed.

But despite this, I have to acknowledge I am an outsider looking in on the whole matter of Oxbridge: wanting to go (never did, not even at school/college, and certainly not later when I was actually investigating entering HE as a full time student), applying to go (the process of application and consideration generally mortifies me), or being there (frankly I would need to be a different person to want to be there and thrive in its atmosphere). Consequently, it was very interesting to be over at All About My Movies and read Emma's take on the whole process of teenagers discovering the success - or otherwise - of their Oxbridge applications.

It's a really fascinating post, not only for what it tells you about the process of Oxbridge university applications, but also about the demands on getting it right that are inherent to these processes. Emma writes:
A couple of my friends are now taking a GAP year and re-applying for Oxbridge next year. A couple of them will be applying to do the same subjects this year, and others will be applying to take ones, as they’ve so eloquently put it, “give me a better chance of getting into Oxbridge.” When stuff like that is said, it truly does make you wonder which they hold more dear – the subject they want to study, or the pride of attending Oxbridge. But surely those are the sort of actions that simply add to the already huge reputation of those two universities, and is it the reputation, or the university, that people are going there for?
Of course, this issue of reputation doesn't stop with the actual attendance at university, but also affects what happens next, as in certain fields that Oxbridge education still opens doors. (Mind, there was something schadenfreude-esque about reading in the Graduate Jobs section of the Guardian at the weekend the tale of the 'poor thing' Oxbridge graduate who had discovered that in his chosen field of creative arts, the qualification was a noose rather than a key. Shame. Still, if he wanted to go into merchant banking I suspect he wouldn't have much difficulty making the move: it's almost a case of horses-for-courses. Not every field needs an Oxbridge graduate or even wants one. There is more to the HE sector than just Oxbridge.)

One final point: it was telling that as part of the follow up discussion, Emma expressed her desire to do Journalism but that it was "completely out of the question" as she said "my parents would kill me!" Metaphors aside, part of me riled at the restrictions on her doing what she might be most interested in as well as good at (she's clearly got the makings of a fine journalistic writer). But another part of me recognised two key things. One: the costs of university and who pays. Grants and fee deferrals and payment on graduation through payroll aside, the ongoing costs of university are still going to be largely footed by parents/family so clearly they want a good return on their investment. Consequently, there is probably increasingly little room for students to actually study what they want. Fair enough? Well, to a point perhaps: it is undeniably a driving factor. Two: the long-term usefulness of degree subjects. Rightly or wrongly, some subjects are perceived as less 'useful' or recognised than others. Media Studies is the one most often trotted out in this context, but plenty of other areas of study get slammed in the same bucket for a variety of reasons (some good, some bad). Where does journalism come in the list? Depends on the institution, the nature of the qualification, and even what the student may expect it can do for them. Reasonably, there may well be better routes into journalism post-degree studying such as refining writerly skills through judicious selection of modules. To come back to the derided area of Media Studies, it's long been possible to effectively study this at Oxbridge: it's just the modules would come under the wide berthing aegis of the great gods, PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) and Social and Political Sciences. My, don't those sound more impressive than saying "I did Media Studies", even though in terms of content and focus you may well have studied the same theories, ideas and activities as someone at Poppleton University? Emma may well find that Maths and Economics opens more doors to her than journalism, even into the world of journalism (although at places like Oxbridge, there are probably fewer economics modules available that are writing-focused rather than maths-focused). Nevertheless, despite these recognitions, a little part of me is still saddened that the university process has become so end-orientated (cost, job to be gained, status of degree/job) when really it's the learning process itself which should be at the heart of degree studies... and a good proportion of space to grow emotionally and intellectually. It's hard to do either of those in an atmosphere of end-orientation.


Anonymous said...

Great article based on an article thing going on.

You're completely right about how going to university should be about learning a subject that you really enjoy & want to know about, but now it's just turned into whatever will find you a job is the field you should pursue. Sad, but true.

And yeah, I may never forgive my parents for making me do something that I'm not totally enthusiastic about, but it could be worse, I guess. I could completely hate the subject.

Bleh. As long as I've got my blogging, I'm happy. :D

Anonymous said...

I applied for english at Cambridge, went to the interview, didn't get a place. The fact is, a degree from Cambridge would look better on my CV than one from York, but maybe I'd have hated my three years there, while for the most part I've loved my time here. Who knows?

You've got to charm your way into Oxbridge, I think, and as such I really do believe that students from a truly comprehensive school like myself are at a disadvantage, becaus we're simply not taught to sell ourselves like that. For me, Oxbridge was never the be all and end all, far from it, and things have worked out well. But there is still a very real, but very hard-to-define inequality about the whole thing which irks me.

I know admission wasn't really the point of your post, but I fancied a rant! :)

Anonymous said...

Good post Lisa, and some really good points. However, the admission thing is hard to define as it varies greatly between subject and college. A 'Classics' friend of mine had an 'interview' in a college room where the prof was reclined on the bed! There was no such nonsense in mine. As I was sweating over a calculation, the prof apologised for the photocopier starting up and said he hoped it wasn't disturbing me. I said it wasn't, but if I didn't sort out the calculation then I could use it as an excuse. he said that I could but it wouldn't be a very good one!! Ow.

I do have to give my place the credit (in my subject) for the admissions being a purely ability-based process. I am state-school educated and had no extras or frills to my name. I like Anna's point a lot. I applied and went to see what it was like. I never really relaxed there or got to enjoy it like friends at other unis seemed to, but I am still glad I checked it out. I am well aware however, that I might have thrived at somewhere that felt more like home.