A combination of exam results in the news and an excellent blog by @pme200 has reminded my of my own Oxbridge experiences.
My parents didn’t go to university and until I hit my late teens, I didn’t know anyone who had gone, so the very idea of heading off to get a degree was still quite grand. At this point, going to uni wasn’t simply something people did after sixth form to delay getting a job, it was a serious life decision.
So, I took the whole process very seriously, and what I knew for certain was that if I wanted to stay in the UK, the very best degrees were from Oxford and Cambridge. My head had been filled with all sorts of stories about so and so’s son who is ever so bright and has gone off to study an Ology at Cambridge, and the woman down the road with the fantastic car wouldn’t be half as successful had she not gone to Oxford. And so it followed that, if I was going to be the first in my immediate family to slog my way through to uni, I was going to do it properly and make sure it was Oxbridge.
Never did it occur to me that I – being from a not-particularly-well-off family, having no powerful friends or acquaintances, and being brought up on a succession of rundown army housing estates – would not be looked upon favourably by the educational elite.
But that’s how it was presented to me by my college’s Higher Education advisor when I first talked about where I wanted to go.
“Jamie and Tessa Fakename will be our Oxbridge applicants this year, trying at all would be a waste of everybody’s time.”
Jamie and Tessa Fakename (I am using a fake name for them – did you spot that?) were two very well-spoken, very well-off twins who everyone in college either knew or knew of. As you can probably tell, I didn’t know them, nor did I know what their parents did in order to end up being so wealthy, but I did know that they were the golden boy and girl of the college and if they were the Oxbridge candidates for the year, there was little point in me even thinking about it.
I have always been stubborn to the point of obdurate (in our family, it’s called ‘grit’), so I pushed the advisor on the subject; what did she mean “it would be a waste of everyone’s time?”
“Well,” she said, “if Cambridge is going to accept someone from this college, it will be someone like Jamie or Tessa, not you.”
“But my grades are the same.”
“That’s besides the point. You’re not what they’re looking for.”
Which was the sum of any and all arguments over the following weeks. I could protest all I wanted, but the long and the short of it was, according to this advisor – this woman tasked with helping young people make enormous decisions and push them to be the best – Oxbridge knew what it wanted and what it wanted was not me.
The arguments continued for another week or so, but besides pointed remarks about her not wanting to waste her time coaching someone without “an Oxbridge aura” and references that “UCAS don’t look kindly on people who rock the boat” no new information was forthcoming.
I wasn’t rich, I dropped some of my Ts and my bus pass was free. It didn’t matter how talented I was or what potential I had, as far as she was concerned, I wasn’t worth the effort.
In the end, I made my selections, got my first choice (University of Kent at Canterbury) and did pretty well, but it wasn’t until much later on that the way I had been disregarded offhand simply because of my background really started to rankle. Although I was pissed off, in my youthful foolishness I had simply come to accept that this woman knew what was what, and that the likes of me weren’t suitable for Oxford or Cambridge. But, as time wore on and I met people who had attended those universities I came to realise, half of them were no smarter or richer or posher than me. What gives?!
It’s not Oxbridge that has the attitude problem, nor is it the students; rather it’s the people in positions of power in our schools and colleges who buy into this outdated notion of what Oxbridge is supposed to be and go out of their way to put off prospective candidates.
Chances are if I did apply I wouldn’t have even made it to the interview process, and even if I had all those fucking bicycles would have put me off, but this advisor – with her prejudices about who I was, what Oxbridge was and the importance of keeping people like me in their place – should have at least let me damn well try. Now I know (for the most part) it doesn’t matter which university you went to, it’s experience that counts, but back then, to me, Oxbridge was the pinnacle of personal achievement and I got shot down before I was even on the runway.
I bear no ill will towards the Fakenames- I doubt they knew what was going on and even if they did, what could they do about it? Nor do I resent the universities themselves for not doing more to destroy their archaic images. I do, however, resent that woman in her brown glasses and green cardigan telling me I wasn’t right for somewhere because she hadn’t caught up with modern Britain.
So, for what it’s worth, there’s my Oxbridge story. No great revelations, although I still wonder from time-to-time why Jamie and Tessa and all their money attended the same cheap, fraud-beset college in a London overspill town as me.