The inadequacies of Oxbridge – Ellie Rowe and Zofia Moritz

A lot of students are now deciding about their future; choosing universities, and picking courses. Oxford and Cambridge are world-renowned universities, and it is considered extremely prestigious to attend them, surrounded as they are with an aura of academic respect: however, are they as perfect as they sound? There are many inadequacies to Oxbridge, which makes them unsuitable or simply not the best option for a large proportion of the population.

To cover the basics, both Cambridge and Oxford are located in small cities, which seem to bear more resemblance to provincial towns than bustling centres. This obviously might not be for everyone. Both are campus-based, and whilst attending you will be a part of a very small, close-knit community. However, the costs of living are disproportionately high for the eternally-broke students: on average £110 per week (bills not included), which would make approximately £3,520 per year, on top of their £9000 annual tuition fees. Whereas a number of other universities, that often appear higher than Oxford in subject league tables, will tend to have significantly lower private accommodation prices. Durham University, which for English is rated first, above Cambridge, St Andrews and then Oxford (which appears in fourth place), has an average private housing cost of £75 per week (bills not included). This works out to be roughly £2400 per annum, so significantly less than Oxford.

The style of teaching in Oxbridge is centred on tutoring, so whilst a student might be an extremely intelligent individual, they might find it difficult to fit in and produce their best work if they are better suited to composing detailed lengthy essays, rather than taking part in debates. This style of teaching, combined with the one-on-one tutor sessions approximately twice per week, might not be seen as suitable for introverted personalities.  On the other hand, Oxbridge stands by the quality over quantity motto in terms of the amount of time a student spends with a teacher, and therefore students are expected to work mostly independently. It has been found that this independent style of learning generates considerable academic pressure for the students, with sometimes terrifying results.

Durham: equally lovely.

As an alarming number of studies continue to discover, a large percentage of students of the most renowned universities in the world are not happy. The staggering results are that almost 21% of Cambridge students are diagnosed with depression, whilst a further 25% claim to be displaying a number of the symptoms associated with this disorder. Those that are successful find themselves under an immense amount of pressure to strive for perfection, in a university known for its competitiveness with regards to academia. Due to the extremely high academic requirements to simply attend the universities, every single student there is considered in the normal society as a very intelligent individual, and is often labelled as ‘Gifted and Talented’. However once this special snowflake finds itself surrounded by people who are equally – if not more – ‘Gifted and Talented’, it, to pursue the metaphor, might find it extremely disappointing to no longer be ‘top of the class’. This, and of course the on-going struggle with keeping up their work, results in extremely high amounts of pressure being placed on the students.

Due to the provincial location of the universities, there are not many opportunities for night life, as well as entertainment in general; this links to students generally only being able to focus on the academic side of their university career, forgetting about other, yet arguably as important, aspects of life, such as socialising with their peers and just letting loose. The significant lack of variety with regards to both local amenities such as grocery stores, as well as establishments vital to the local night life such as the clubs and bars, can result in what many Oxbridge alumni have described as a “monotonous existence”. This lack of variety and the impact it has on a person’s mental health can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as mental illnesses. This monotony could be linked to the previously mentioned high percentage of depression amongst students of Oxbridge; each university records approximately 50 to 60 suicide attempts each year, which contrasts vastly to the common thought that ‘university is the best time of one’s life’ and the significantly lower rates in other universities. A further and admittedly less extreme way to measure the students’ enjoyment of the “university experience” is simply through student satisfaction. Figures are provided every year by ‘The Complete University Guide’ and for the most recent year, both Oxford and Cambridge failed even to break into the top 15 for student satisfaction.  Cambridge is currently placed at 18th, with Oxford trailing behind at 20th, behind universities such as Keele, Loughborough, Bath and 14/16 others. Topping the list? Buckingham University.

However, it can’t be denied that attending a university which is as prestigious as Oxford or Cambridge may hold its merits. A 1st class degree from a university nobody has heard of will never be as valuable in the eyes of the employer as a 2:1 from a ‘better’ university such as Oxford or Cambridge. And whilst Oxbridge might not always the chart topper when it comes to league tables, the overall quality of teaching is of an undeniably high standard: it’s just a case of whether it is right for you? The standards and reputation of these universities mean that achieving your goal of attending is an immense achievement. But if you got into another university which was not Oxbridge but was better in the league tables for your subject, should you not feel the same level of pride and accomplishment? This is where university elitism may become an issue. For some, getting into a ‘worse’ university is a massive achievement; yet in the eyes of others they have failed, and are not as employable as a person who got into Oxford.

For many, Oxbridge is their goal, and when they arrive (if they arrive) it is an incredible life experience. But it is important to not forget that the Oxbridge experience is not for everybody. Just because they are not your typical ‘nerd’ doesn’t mean they are not intelligent. There are many other kinds such as emotional intelligence, or being extremely talented at the arts. This is an area that many other institutions are better suited for. So it is important to not fall into the trap of university elitism and simply attending Cambridge because it’s Cambridge, but to choose the university which offers the best course for you. We are all individual and your preferred style of learning is likely completely different to mine. And as Judith Carlisle, Head of Oxford High School said, “Don’t aim for Oxford if not getting in will destroy you or if going will destroy you.”

1 thought on “The inadequacies of Oxbridge – Ellie Rowe and Zofia Moritz

  • June 15, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Ellie and Zof, this is a brilliant article. Arguably one of the strongest pieces so far published in terms of journalistic merits.

    A couple of points I would, however, make:

    1. University subject rankings – These are built around dubiously opaque descriptors, such as ‘student satisfaction’ and ’employment prospects’. ‘Contact time’ is also looked at, and whereas some Russell Group universities offer three or four hours in a week in which you will have an academic-led class (with a dozen or more other students), at Oxford or Cambridge one is likely to go head-to-head with an esteemed Don on a weekly or biweekly basis.
    2. You are quite right to identify that such a tutorial set-up is highly pressurising. That pressure equals stress for many students, and the mental health issues you highlight are concerning. However, if one is ambitious in career terms, it is very likely that stress is something university education can helpfully prepare you for. The real question, therefore, is, do Oxford and Cambridge do enough to assist those students who struggle emotionally in such an intellectually demanding environment? The collegiate set-up should enable this.
    3. An even more alarming aspect of your article than the 100-120 attempted suicides per year at Oxford and Cambridge, is the fact that, notwithstanding, both rank in the top 20 (presumably out of more than 100) for student satisfaction. Perhaps there is an underlying point which your article skilfully avoids: that suicide is an especial danger to a particular demographic – young adults; particularly young men.
    4. Your criticism of Oxford and Cambridge as glorified ‘provincial towns’ seems a little ironic given your championing of Durham (population a third that of Oxford, and ethnically far less diverse), Keele and Buckingham.

    All that said, I really do think this is one of the best articles I’ve read on Oxbridge – here or anywhere else! You have an angle and have worked it incredibly cleverly. WELL DONE.

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