Oxbridge – a boarding school for grown ups. What a marvellous idea!

I’ve finally got some discipline in my life. The trigger for it was going to Oxford University for the National Centre for Research Methods, Research Methods Festival. I have been to Oxford University for a conference before so was slightly aware of their dining room and communal eating but I thought that this excellent service was for delegates only, you know, people serving you swiftly and efficiently, promptly at the allocated meal times – I thought the students would have some sort of regular canteen type situation with a dinner lady and stodgy food. But I found out that actually, Oxford (and Cambridge) students get fed and served like this everyday – by staff in bow-ties!

I was very shocked. ‘Normal’ students have to plan their food, budget, think about what to cook, use crappy saucepans and fight with their room mates who never do their share of the cleaning. All this eats up time and causes stress.

I lived at home during my BA and MA so did not have to suffer this stress with strangers, but I did not get served by my parents. We always lived communally where we all contributed and my dad never wore a bow-tie. Anyway, my point is that although at first I was shocked that this is normal and every day (oh how the other half live), I came from the conference refreshed, feeling healthy (the fruit was delicious!) and suddenly had become a early to bed early to rise person. It helped me get into a healthy routine.

My thesis is broadly speaking about widening participation, these elite universities for me were something to be hated and despised. But having now experienced this ‘boarding school for adults’, I think that all students, especially those who have to work, have children, live in crowded housing or noisy neighbourhoods, whilst trying to study, should be sponsored to spend six weeks (or months) in Oxford University as a respite and to have the opportunity to spend uninterrupted time on intellectual thoughts rather than chore thoughts or have no thoughts due to dragging through the day after sleepless nights spent in a noisy neighbourhood.

Oxbridge students could also have an exchange and live life in a ‘normal’ university for a bit too. I do understand that there are Oxbridge students who have lived in ‘the real world’, and realise I often exhibit probably unfair prejudice towards people educated in elite institutions, but for those privately educated young people who need this safe, protective environment as they have lived like this since aged 5 and Oxbridge for them therefore is a continuation of this boarding school environment, a university cultural exchange may be beneficial. Especially if Oxford graduates are our leaders and education ministers of the future.

I know of someone (@KathrynDodd) who once suggested to me that Oxford and Cambridge should become a university for postgraduates only. After experiencing this environment, I think it is a marvelous idea. I don’t see anything wrong with having this boarding school type of university like Oxford and Cambridge per se (so long as all the staff have good pay and benefits), but it should be available to a wider group of people, and perhaps making it a postgraduate initiative is the answer.

Just so you can get a feel for the atmosphere there, here is the view from my bedroom window.

View from Oxford

Punting along

Until I moved out and now have the luxury of my own study, I did my degree and MA in an overcrowded flat, sharing a bedroom with my sisters and studying in the hallway, where I would get visits from my family as they used the toilet (as well as previously studying for my GCSEs and A levels in the watertank cupboard). I do work best now if I hear toilets flushing, farting, water running and the neighbours stabbing each other, and I would not change the experience I had as it’s made me as hard as nails and no sociologist should live in an ivory tower, but I reckon looking at ducks whilst thinking philosophical thoughts would have been pretty good too. Just as a respite.

  1. For the sake of accuracy, I should highlight a few things about an Oxford student’s experience. The service offered to conference guests is significantly better than that provided to students – in line with what guests paying considerably more than student rates expect!

    At many Oxford colleges students who are living in college accommodation do get their evening meal “canteen style”, where you queue up, have food dished out to you (paid for as part of your accommodation fees) and then go and sit in the dining hall. At some colleges you get to choose whether to go to one or the other, with the vast majority opting for “informal hall”/”canteen style”. I can only think of one undergraduate college where “formal hall” (as it is known, because if you’re a member of the university you have to wear a gown to it!) is the only option.

    It should also be noted that *very few* students do this throughout their time at Oxford. Most spend at least one year “living out” in private rented housing, with the positives and negatives that go along with this. In quite a few colleges, people spends two out of three years doing this; pretty standard compared to other universities. Even in colleges where not everyone has to live out, accommodation in later years often has shared cooking facilities, is consequently cheaper, but with no meal provided.

    None of this is to deny that students at Oxford and Cambridge aren’t extremely lucky to receive the level of support and facilities that they do. I think it’d be great if more students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, could experience working in such surroundings. Although, I’d take issue with the suggestion that most Oxbridge students haven’t experienced life outside “the college bubble”. However, I do think it’s important that misperceptions of Oxford and Cambridge aren’t spread, in case they put off applicants who see it as an alien world that they wouldn’t fit in to.

    Speaking from personal experience, I was never served by someone wearing a bow tie.


  2. thanks for your reply! It is good to get clarity. That is what I wanted during the conference. I wanted to understand the Oxford experience, because, like I said the environment at St Catherine’s College seemed really beneficial study wise and I loved it there. The two Oxford graduates who I spoke to about the Oxford student experience I think felt a little bit out of place. One was working class from state school and the other a BME who she feels was accepted just as a quota and was the only BME in a class of over 100. They both however praised the tutorial system highly. But you are right, misconceptions should not be spread and I hope I have not done this in this post I was trying to say how good the experience was and that I am working through any prejudice I may have towards elite universities – I think we do tend to only hear negative things about Oxbridge and we also tend to have a bit of reverse snobbery towards it. I want to be more open minded, so thank you for responding! I will have to do more research into the bowtie thing though – perhaps the uniforms differ in each college šŸ˜‰


  3. ds said:

    It’s not just Oxford and Cambridge where this happens. I was at Durham in the early 1990s, which contained lots of Oxbridge rejects (like me), and many from the independent sector (not like me, a northern comp prole). The communal dining experience is quite important, for many reasons, I think. And most times, it was in exactly the same way as Jake describes above: canteen service.

    I also happened to be at the most informal college of the university. Where everyone else had to robe up for matriculation at the start of our time, Collingwood was the only college where wearing sub fusc was optional. In other places in the university, formal meals (and the wearing of subfusc at them), with attendant service was mandatory a number of times per term, with non-attendance being fineable. We did had “formal” meals and high table, but they were not the grandiloquent occasions they might have been elesewhere. They were treated as more social, fun occasions to catch up with people you may not see so often, due to living out or other similar reasons.


  4. She exaggerates for comic effect. There was no excessive farting in our home and the neighbours did not stab each other that often – only on major public holidays.


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