Sorry, Giles, that’s not the Oxford I know

The Telegraph, 19th December 2016

Something was worryingly familiar about the tone of Giles Coren’s column for the Times this weekend, in which he wrote about the hopeless court case of Faiz Siddiqui, who is attempting to sue Oxford University for its substandard teaching and – by extension – his failure to get a first-class degree.

It was the same refrain I hear from some college alumni, who come back to the dining hall for an overpriced reunion dinner and slur romantically about their ‘Oxford days’ over a pancetta-rolled pigeon breast and too many glasses of Pinot Noir.

There seems to be something uniquely pompous about Oxford nostalgia, often from men who like the edited memory of their university days to be of them lolling on one of the university’s beautiful quads with a croquet mallet as the sun sets or, for Giles, “nicking books out of the Bod under your cricket jumper and lobbing them at punting tourists”.

Terrible teaching is what makes Oxford special, he argues, because it gives you enough time to behave like an arse and pretend to be in Brideshead. What rubbish.

But worse is his suggestion that “Mr Siddiqui being of foreign origin” might be the reason for his misunderstanding that Oxford is just a posh boys’ paradise and not, say, one of the best universities in the world.

Giles, who presumably want us to think he spent his three years eating only from eighteenth-century silverware and tottering along to debauched parties, speaks for all “British johnnies” when he glowers that careers and degree classifications are well off the agenda for anyone at Oxford – how silly of foreigners to think otherwise.

The problem is that this narrow picture of Oxford life isn’t only inaccessible to international students. It’s also exactly what puts off state school applicants to Oxbridge, and people that don’t come from families that can send you, like Coren, to a school such as Westminster – one that punts you gently up the Thames from central London and drops you off at the college gates in time for freshers’ week.

For the applicants I’ve been talking to this week at my college, Christ Church, who’ve worked astonishingly hard to get an interview, the idea that Oxford isn’t about academia at all is laughable – and terrifying.

They’ve been ferried from college to college being interviewed by world experts in their subject, sometimes at very short notice, having their personal statements and submitted essays and aptitude test scores pulled apart in front of their eyes.

They’ll sit nervously at the Christmas dinner table this year, thinking all the time of the letter on January 11th, which will either admit them to one of the colleges or, more likely, reject them. They want their performance here, this week, to count.

But for every state school and underprivileged applicant who makes it to interview here, one might choose not to apply, misinformed by the sepia-filtered memories of newspaper columnists who make Oxford seem a dreamland of privilege, where people pay their way in and then get firsts without working.

It’s truly not like that, and the excellent access scheme work at college and university level is doing its best to show the place for what it is: somewhere that people work hard and think deeply about their careers and stress over essay deadlines and, when they have the time, lark about like any other student and not like a slapstick character in a rowing blazer.

It’s a pleasure to bust that myth for people here interviewing now, but for those that chose not to apply, it’s too late.

Of course, I don’t think that Faiz Siddiqui should get any money from Oxford – 16 years after graduating – for not getting a first. But it’s an injustice to the thousands that will have applied and been rejected to pretend that Oxford life is a game, and that the punishing process sixth formers go through is just an elaborate way of finding the right sort of chap, a role Coren clearly fancies for himself.

He should save his airbrushed memories for the old boys at his next college dinner, and stop spreading lies that could do some real damage.

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