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Dropping out of Oxford: Revisited

Ten years ago, The Oxford Student reported on students leaving the University of Oxford and found that, despite a few success stories, many left because of mental health issues. More recently, Cherwell wrote on the issue of rustication, a term referring to a temporary leave of absence, showing that despite around 50 percent of students considering rustication, only four percent actually do so—mostly because they were afraid of social isolation and stigmatisation. Departing from Oxford, and the broader issue of student dissatisfaction, remain taboo, and it was understandably difficult to find students willing to speak on this topic. In the following, a former BA Law student who chose to leave and a current MA student in the Department of Politics and International Relations who decided to remain share their thoughts. This is an anecdotal approach to the topic, adding to the landscape of voices on the value and price of an Oxford degree.

Student satisfaction and academic rigour can go hand in hand. The University of St. Andrews was ranked as the top institution in the UK for two consecutive years by The Guardian, with the highest overall ‘positivity measure’, in 2023. In contrast, Oxford University ranked in 51st position. However, despite this disparity, Oxford boasts one of the lowest drop-out rates in the UK, with only 0.9 percent of students choosing to leave. This begs the question: what were the experiences of those few who do choose to leave, and why do dissatisfied students decide to stay?

A starting point is to examine why students decide to come to Oxford in the first place. Both of our interviewees stated it was Oxford’s standing as “one of the best international universities” and its “high selectivity” that motivated their applications. Oxford’s prestige attracts competitive students, but the essence of this prestige – its ranking, history, societies, notable alumni, and so on – remains elusive. It is perhaps the unexplainable that makes Oxford unique, often simply described as “different” by those who have experienced it firsthand, without further explanation; others perceived as too much of an outsider to be let in to this secret.

“Oxford boasts one of the lowest drop-out rates in the UK, with only 0.9 percent of students choosing to leave.”

However, once students arrive and experience Oxford themselves, it is often not what they expected. Our law student described Oxford as “incredibly rigid— you can’t easily change your major, and you can’t even choose many subjects. I want to learn about a range of things and figure out what I’m actually passionate about, not just be pigeonholed into one subject.” This early specialization is a unique aspect of the British educational system. In contrast, the American four-year college system offers much more flexibility.

Our politics student stated: “I am dissatisfied with the student experience even though I was warned by mentors and alumni. It’s much worse than I could have ever imagined – the University lacks diversity in all imaginable realms. This does not only influence the variety of perspectives shared in classroom discussions, but also the spirit of societies and social events. There are barely free social events and many are harnessed by a persistent elitism.” When asked what they would change about the University, they pointed to the financial aid system, arguing that “the best university in the world should enable the brightest students to attend, not just the brightest of those who can afford it.”

Oxford states on its website that their ambition is “to ensure that no one with outstanding academic potential is deterred from studying here because of their background, personal circumstances, or finances.” However, many international students in Master’s or DPhil programmes who spoke with us received no financial assistance from the University. Instead, the University relies on students being able to secure scholarships from external sources or fund their studies independently, with the latter being heavily influenced by socioeconomic status. One applicant had to decline their offer as they could neither afford it independently nor defer. Deferring is only an option once the Financial Declaration is met, which requires proof of sufficient funding for one year, covering both living expenses and tuition fees.

“…once students arrive and experience Oxford themselves, it is often not what they expected.”

These experiences may shed light as to why some students opt to drop out while others stay. The law student told us: “From term one, I knew I didn’t want to study law. Everyone around me told me to stick it out. ‘It’s just three years.’ I wish I dropped out earlier. It took me too long to get the conviction to do it.” They preferred gaining practical experience and “learn best by doing”. Staying in university is often viewed as a “safer bet”, usually supported by parents and peers, and there is a strong social norm to go to (and stay in) university. This aligns with Cherwell’s findings: taking a leave of absence, let alone leaving university altogether, is still stigmatised. While “degrees are a signal for employers for general aptitude, deciding against one can also show determination and independent thinking.” Indeed, the former law student confirms that sometimes “dropping out is a stronger signal than staying in uni.”

The politics student does not consider dropping out an option, believing it “too late” at this stage to leave. They stated: “I simply need a master’s degree to proceed with my career, and that’s what I am here for. I wish I had had more confidence to decline my spot at the University of Oxford in favour of another university.” However, they were unsure to what extent the “Oxford” label, a crucial part of attracting students in the first place, will be helpful in their further career. They conclude: “Since many people around the world are familiar with the University, I would say the Oxford label helps to attract attention – for better or worse.”

Peer and parental pressure, the academic climate in Oxford, and society’s emphasis on a degree all contribute to maintaining low dropout rates. But for some, dropping out is a preferable course of action, requiring more conviction and consideration than the decision to attend Oxford. It’s unlikely anyone had to justify to their parents, or themselves, why they wanted to go to Oxford.

“…deciding against (a degree) can also show determination and independent thinking…”

Nevertheless, a low ranking in “overall positivity”, a significant number of students contemplating departure, and stories of students persisting for pragmatic reasons all raise the question: “Why Oxford?”. And it’s a question which should not be brushed aside easily with reference to the University’s reputation. The politics student advises others who plan to apply to Oxford, or have already commenced their studies, to be critical and “consider whether this is what you are looking for.” Many students will have a clear understanding of what they hope to achieve here. But if it doesn’t work out, do not feel you have to suffer in silence.

Image description: The Radcliffe Camera