Toffishness and Twittishness at Oxford University

Has Oxford University had its sense of proportion surgically removed or do they just have the lousiest PR operation of any academic institution in the Western world? Just a couple of months after being faced with a court case after demanding that a postgraduate student should show evidence of £21,000 a year to pay his way, or sacrifice a place, they’re back in the spotlight for firing a librarian at St Hilda’s College. Her crime was to be in the building at the time when a group of students filmed a Harlem Shuffle stunt that later went viral on the Internet.

Quite apart from the breathtaking hypocrisy of an institution that publicly bans postgraduate students from taking paid employment whilst habitually offering them posts in its own college libraries, the disproportionate reaction, lack of explanation and general arrogance shown by the College authorities on this occasion shows a complete lack of understanding of the reality of student life

Students pull stunts. They always have and they always will. In the case of Old Etonians, student high spirits (to use a euphemistic term) can cause considerable harm to both people and property. Just ask Boris Johnson, who admitted his own tendency towards such behaviour in the notorious Bullingdon Club whilst at Oxford this week in an interview with the Radio Times:

This is a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness,” admits Johnson. “But at the time you felt it was wonderful to be going round swanking it up. Or was it? Actually I remember the dinners being incredibly drunken.”

He is reminded that one riotous Bullingdon dinner ended with a restaurant being smashed up and Boris and other members spending a night in a police cell. “Yes. And the abiding memory is of deep, deep self-loathing.”

Presumably such behaviour is acceptable at Oxford when indulged in by Old Etonians wearing tailcoats and gold-buttoned waistoats. It didn’t seem to harm the reputation of the revellers, including the present Chancellor and Prime Minister, or the University. Quite the reverse – such behaviour has been tolerated, even celebrated, as part of the rich pattern of Oxford life for as long as anyone can remember.

But when a bunch of ordinary undergraduates hatch a plot to make a seven-minute video of a dance craze, thoughtfully scheduled at 11.30 pm on a Saturday night to avoid disturbing studying students, they’re slapped with fines or worse. Moreover, they are treated like ignorant, naughty children who don’t even deserve the dignity of an explanation.

I know Oxford has a collegiate system, and within it colleges have a high degree of autonomy, so it is arguably a mistake to infer general policy from the actions of individual institutions. But frankly, that’s pretty disingenouous these days. As an academic institution, Oxford University has a worldwide public profile and it is looking increasingly arrogant, insular and snobbish. I declare a personal bias – the three weeks I spent as an undergraduate at St Hugh’s in 1977 were among the most wretched of my life, and I left and pursued my academic career elsewhere. But a lot of institutions have improved beyond measure in their transparency and accountability since the 1970s. It looks as if Oxford isn’t one of them.

Back in 1981 I wrote an essay about my own experiences, and why I left, as part of my degree assessment in English and Education at York University. Its final sentence was, “The really disturbing thing about Oxford University is that they can afford not to care.” How sad to see evidence over 30 years later that this might indeed still be the case.


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