A note for the freshers

What’s the point of this university? While recently writing a letter of introduction to my college son I found myself stuck on this rather important  question. Searching career sites, prospectuses and the like inevitably yielded absolutely nothing. So I decided to investigate a more Oxford-centric side to the debate.

‘The greatest wrong’ claimed my first year handbook, ‘is to deprive someone with greater intellectual curiosity a chance to study here’. With libraries, laboratories and academics galore there’s undoubtedly a wealth of knowledge to be unearthed in eight weeks, and maybe that’s why so many apply. Nor is the discovery of such intellectual gems left to chance, but is imparted through a punishing schedule of lectures, tutorials and collections. It’s no surprise the most miserable undergraduates are those with no interest in their subject.

On a more practical level, the receipt of a degree is the ticket to the middle-class comfort to which we are meant to aspire. Without it, warned my parents, you will be condemned to a life of brute manual labour, returning exhausted and covered in coal dust to your council flat, where entertainment consists of Coronation Street, drinking and fighting. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, not to mention a cruel stereotype, but is a very real fear to those of the ‘silver spoon’ persuasion. The whole ideology behind Tuition fees rests on the arguments that graduates earn more; and by extension claims that employers are more willing to hire graduates above others. By going to university it seems that you give yourself a vital advantage in a jobs market which appears to be in freefall.

Yet reality itself undermines these two most pragmatic of arguments. For the vast and academically average majority the dream of a Nobel Prize quickly evaporates when one discovers that firstly I’m not the best at my subject and secondly I’m just an undergraduate and thus highly unlikely to make discoveries of worth. Graduate jobs are equally as scarce as academic success. Even if you get one, the very wage differential upon which the government legitimises its tuition fees is beginning to evaporate; three years in the job is increasingly seen by employers as more useful then three years in a library. Why not take a gap year and just start working two years earlier?

It’s got to be about something more. Thus we come to explanation b); that university life is in its own way uniquely fulfilling. But what does that mean exactly? You don’t need to see the sprawl of stalls at fresher’s fair to realise everyone is in to different things. University sports teams and societies provide a good example; their members cite the camaraderie, challenges and copious drinking involved. For some students the latter alone is reason enough; and their holidays must be filled with fond memories of Park End, and the sadly departed Kukui. For aspiring hacks the chance to make their views heard, whether on the floor of the Union or the pages of our newspapers, must be irresistible, though one can’t help but suspect they have one eye focused on the future. Clearly these are great experiences. Yet they are far from life-changing; people play sport at home, listen to crap music outside Kukui and hacks will still make their views heard to anyone that will listen.  None are an Oxford monopoly.

There is however a common them linking all the above: meeting new people. Despite Oxford’s notorious lack of social or ethnic diversity you’re still likely to encounter a far greater range of people from different backgrounds and perspectives to your own. Going into a job simply wouldn’t have the same effect; unsurprisingly employers tend to hire people like themselves, and the stress of the job makes it difficult to interact with people in the same way. It can’t be denied that breaking out from the cliques which tend to dominate school life has a value in itself. One might even suggest that it’s people, rather then books, are what really ‘expands you mind’. Of course this is somewhat controversial among academic types. Do I really mean to suggest that drunken conversations outside pubs are as useful as tutorials? Well yes, I suppose I do.

So that’s what I eventually told my college son; whether he spends his three years studying in the Rad Cam, or drunkenly passed out on the floor of Park End, he should get to know some people along the way. Hopefully they’ll carry him home afterwards.