Keble College may be looking to perform a traditional boat burning if they become Head of the River. It’s a controversial move, with Garden Masters resigning and the JCR voting against it.
It has highlighted some absurd college ground rules. Walking and sitting on the main lawn is not allowed but croquet and boat burning are fine? We’re used to these rules, and to be honest, it’s not a big deal. The real issue is the impression that some customs give to people outside Oxford who, for some reason, don’t seem to care about croquet and setting fire to objects as much as we do.
Access schemes aim to dispel myths and encourage applications because they know that Oxbridge’s reputation can precede itself and this isn’t necessarily a good thing. I know, because 18-year-old me felt the weight of this reputation, as did many from my school. Many didn’t apply as they’d rather have had a ‘normal uni experience’. People were worried about my prospects of making friends because ‘normal people don’t exist there’; I would be Joey hanging out with Ross’ palaeontology friends in Barbados. When giving Birmingham students tours around Keble, they would ask more questions about social life than anything else. My experience has taught me that underrepresentation can happen because initial applications are lacking.
In short, Oxford has an image problem. However, there is no smoke without fire and Oxford is not proportionally representative of the country’s make-up, but the more normal and more appealing side to the University often gets drowned out by the flood of individual outrageous stories, such as £50 notes being burned and, in this case, an entire boat.
A few years after the Riot Club, we are still feeding society with real-life examples of decadent destruction. What good does it even serve? Even if a boat is old and useless, this doesn’t even come into it. It is the symbol that will diffuse through images and social media, not the ‘logic’ behind it. We can’t trash those who have finished exams with food on the high street out of respect for those who can’t afford it. Even if the food has gone off, it is the symbol of wastage and disrespect that resonates. It is the symbol of privilege. And it’s this symbol that those outside Oxford including potential applicants will see – the people that have no connections within Oxford to contradict this misrepresentation. For this reason, boat burning is not only unnecessary but thankless to Oxbridge’s attempts to improve their elitist image.
Even the slightest chance that it could affect one application is worth more than any entitlement to celebrate in this way. Keble would be better to burn their bridges with its rowing community than to burn a boat with them.