The media’s scrutiny surrounding Oxbridge has gone too far

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Earlier this term, The Daily Mail published an article headlining ‘Bottom’s up! Oxford University students dance in the street as they party into the night for Freshers’ Week’. On first glance, this provided me with much amusement as I scrolled through the photographs looking to see if I anyone I knew had embarrassingly been ‘papped’. However, as I finished my hunt for friends, I began to question the true meaning and impact of this article. First, the photos of students were not out of the ordinary: travel to any university across the country during fresher’s week; you shall find similar frivolity. Secondly, this kind of intrusion into Oxford student’s privacy (and Cambridge student’s privacy) is not uncommon. Having studied at both institutions there are key differences, but both receive the same unhealthy obsession from the media (in particular The Daily Mail). But why is there such an obsession with Oxbridge students compared to other universities? 

Now admittedly Oxford and Cambridge host a range of antiquated systems, spectacular events and other oddities which naturally draws the media towards both institutions. The paparazzi have often turned up during the ball season, taking pictures of students in their formal attire entering and leaving the colleges. I have also seen pictures taken during the Oxford exam period, at graduation and even on Caesarian Sunday in Cambridge. The truth is, that while these events may in character be considered quirky, some outdated or just plain bizarre; they are what distinguishes Oxbridge from other institutions. These events, however, are not so different from other institutions. Most universities now have end of year or end of term balls, an exam period and a graduation ceremony, and even Durham keeps with the tradition of wearing gowns.  

The impact of an obsessive media culture can ultimately be detrimental. While I recognise that Oxbridge does host unique events, it is important to reiterate that Oxbridge operates in a similar context to other universities. To extricate the Oxbridge experience from other university experiences risks alienating students who, even before applying, may feel ostracised. This point is more relevant than it ever has been, particularly from an access perspective. Having worked with young students across the country, many from schools which send few if any students to Oxbridge each year, I believe the media runs the risk of perpetuating false stereotypes. I dedicated two years at undergrad trying to talk to disadvantaged students in my college’s link areas, as well as trying to understand some of the fundamental issues surrounding access to Oxbridge. Access issues are varied and diverse: from STEM intake for female students; BME students; students from pupil-premium backgrounds; to even encouraging ‘looked after students’. The same issue of false stereotypes surrounding the Oxbridge experience is one of the main reasons students often have for not applying. The most common response I received from students for not applying was often in the context of: “I don’t think Oxbridge is for me, I don’t think I will fit in”. 

“The impact of an obsessive media culture can ultimately be detrimental…[and] risks alienating students.”

Rather surprisingly, the vast majority of students at Oxford and Cambridge are relatively un-stereotypical. My first week of graduate work here consisted of meeting an incredibly diverse array of students from all different backgrounds, who happened to all share a common interest for their subject specialism. Even as an undergraduate I found I made friends with likeminded individuals, yet each had come with varying experience and a diversity in background. What is startling, then, is to see the media obsessing over the lives and activities of Oxbridge students, provoking an obtuse fascination which ultimately pushes the students here away from what is the ‘norm’ at other less exposed universities. 

Offering such a one-sided perception of what life is like at Oxbridge continues to make many hesitant to apply and works against all efforts here to improve access. An article published in Varsity last month by Lucy Fairweather made an excellent point regarding other institutions’ access policies and work: “The almost exclusive media focus given to Oxbridge means that other universities are not held to account when it matters”. The media obsession at Oxbridge means other institutions which are not openly scrutinised or regularly have their students’ privacy invaded are essentially ignored. It seems unfair that Oxbridge is held responsible for failing to meet access targets. Who can blame disadvantaged students from not applying? While these stories may bring a sense of delight to some, yet in a wider context these articles are shamefully damaging, perpetuating and disseminating misperceptions which can only deter students away from applying.