Tis the season of Oxbridge myths


Unlike a white Christmas, annual Oxbridge bashing and counter-bashing is a seasonal guarantee. Interview season is upon us once again and while last year the focus on was Elly Nowell, this year Tom Mendelsohn in Indy Voices has caught the attention of many current undergraduates.

Some of the criticism is superficial and I don’t want to rise to the bait of sentences like “silver-spoon asshats in antique pantaloons”. I can only dispute such stereotypes with anecdotal evidence but in my experience of two-and-a-half years at Oxford, the particular private school caricature being described is very much in the minority. It seems unfair and counter-productive to suggest otherwise.

Stereotypes aside, there are a few points that the article makes which I would like to compare with my own experiences and, where possible, statistics in relation to Oxford.

1. “Oxford is rammed to the gunnels with floppy posh hair and bright red trousers”

The point here is clearly not a sartorial one, it’s that public school students are over-represented at Oxbridge. This is certainly true of Oxford; while 93% of the country is educated at state schools and 7% from independent, the intake is 57.5% state to 42.5% independent. However, this headline statistic is far from the whole story. Of those students achieving the required minimum AAA at A Level, 67% are state school to 33% from private, a ratio far closer to the balance Oxford is on its way to achieving (indeed Cambridge is now at that ratio). Moreover, a disproportionately high number of state school applications are for the five most oversubscribed subjects (35% of all state school applications versus 29% of private) and disproportionately low number for the five least oversubscribed subjects (13% state versus 18% private). Viewed in their broader context, Oxford’s imbalance is not as dramatic as it may appear and many of the factors that hinder state school students are beyond its control.

2. “The whole rotten Oxbridge edifice [is] supported by its wealthy alumni”

Again, this is absolutely true. The universities and their individual colleges receive enormous donations from alumni. Just this year, Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman gave £75m to Oxford which will rise to a whopping £300m with matched funding. However, far from supporting “the whole rotten Oxbridge edifice” this money will be used to abolish the tuition fee increase for the poorest pupils. This is on top of Oxford’s already generous bursary and outreach spending, which is estimated to be over £11m in 2012-13. Indeed, Oxford is using a higher proportion of the revenue from the fee hike than any other university on access and support (50%) - double the national average. Oxford is certainly supported by wealthy alumni, but the primary focus of these revenues is making the university as accessible as they can make it to those of all backgrounds.

3. “It’s no myth that tutors still delight in byzantine lines of questioning during an interview process that vastly favour the slick confidence that…a private education so effortlessly provides”

Sample questions on the Oxford website include “why do many animals have stripes?” and “what is language?”. These certainly seem like more conceptual questions than many candidates would be comfortable with. However, unpredictable conceptual questions, rather than aiding private school students, are an attempt to reset the balance. Such questions cannot be absolutely prepared for and by providing examples on the website the university does its best to let all students know what to expect.

The context of the questions should also be considered. Unlike on the website, students are guided through the questions by tutors rather than having them suddenly sprung on them. One tutor qualifies the “what is language?” sample question by saying “I would never launch this question at a candidate on its own, it might grow out of a discussion”. I have had four interviews at two different colleges and not one tutor tried to catch me out with a question like this. It is not in the interviewer’s interest, after taking the time to look at a candidate’s personal statement, reference, grades, admissions test, submitted essay and then inviting them to interview, to then blindside them into silence at interview.

4. “The vast majority of alumni end up working at banks, or hedge funds, or accountants…the very apparatus of social discohesion”

Since 2008, the most common employment for Oxford graduates is secondary school teaching (370 graduates). Second, third and fourth are different types of research positions (337, 297 and 266 respectively). In fact, management consultants only come in at number eight with 176 graduates. I accept the general point, however, that there are more financial analysts (174) than there are youth workers (5) and that Oxbridge graduates tend to go on to highly paid and ‘socially irresponsible’ positions.

Once again, this is to ignore the broader context. Go to an Oxford careers day and virtually every stand will be from a management consultancy, financial advice service or a business conglomerate. During last term, I even went to a journalism-specific careers day and there was not a single national newspaper, radio station or television station. Faced with headlines screaming about unemployment, it is a pretty big ask to expect new graduates to shun the only career opportunities they are being presented with in order to avoid becoming part of a socially divisive organisation. This is not the fault of the university careers service. These companies’ ability to afford to send representative to Oxford careers fairs is a far wider social problem than Oxford University and it is unreasonable to blame the university and is graduates for being one of the final links in the chain.

This isn’t an attempt to criticise Tom or his article (such criticism seems to have played out fairly unrelentingly in the Twitter arena). I simply think that wider context should be provided for some of the points raised and that it is unfair on both the unversity itself and the current student body to be portrayed as predominantly privileged and socially irresponsible. In spite of the university’s persistent efforts, from applications to employment, there are far wider social forces at play.


The BBC’s Olympic legacy

There has been much concern over the legacy of London 2012 both in terms of its cultural impact and the future use of the facilities themselves. The Guardian yesterday published that 21 school playing fields have been sold off since the coalition came into power. This is from a total of 22 bids and introduces an interesting new statistic to the concern which has been raised about 50% of our gold-medalists having come through the private school system.

Away from this precarious legacy, there is one which is more certain: that of the future of BBC Sport’s broadcasting.

The BBC Sport’s website was given a big upgrade in February of this year (its first since 2003) and the past 11 days have been its greatest test. It does well to maintain such clarity of information while also providing a comprehensive video and text coverage. The stroke of genius to add the colour blue to anything live makes it easy to sift your way through the wealth of coverage to find what is going on at that moment.

The ‘bookmarked’ streams work exceptionally well. These split that day’s coverage into its component races, matches, heats etc and allow you to skip straight to what you want to watch. This will be great for future broadcasting of single events where they can be used to flag up far more specific moments and highlights in the shorter timeframe like goals, tries and overtakes.

The video is not just limited to the live streams. Copious highlights packages are swiftly uploaded as well as a decent smattering of behind the scenes footage and well-produced build-up clips. Particularly interesting is the one about how they film the swimming and diving. The camera which runs alongside the divers as they fall is simply dropped down a long tube and plummets at the same speed as them!

The presenting has also been strong and guest pundits such as Ian Thorpe and Michael Johnson have proved enormously popular and have provided intelligent and articulate views from expert standpoints. Regarding the BBC’s own, Clare Balding is of course standout. She has translated her genuine passion for sport into an encyclopaedic knowledge of many sporting disciplines and adds only new and pertinent information.

Away from the video, BBC’s consistently strong text commentary has dealt well with the complex web of events. It is disciplined in picking out just the most important goings on allowing it to maintain absolute clarity.

I’m not sure if it’s necessarily related to the Olympics but the @BBCSport Twitter acocunt appears to have taken on the sense of humour for which the BBC’s text commentary is renowned  Rather than such grey, factual tweets, they are now more relaxed and informal. It also interacts with other BBC Sport journalists’ Twitter accounts (which are also of a high quality and @BBCSport_Ollie deserves a special mention) as well as those of participating athletes.

I saw Roger Mosey speak about his plans for BBC Sport’s coverage of London 2012 in October last year and he seemed confident and full of ideas. His masterplan has been executed brilliantly and will leave Britain with a legacy of unparalleled sports broadcasting. As much of the international press is criticising its home coverage, from Channel 9 in Australia to NBC in the States, the BBC’s quality coverage is something for which we should be truly grateful.

London 2012 without a ticket

As Team GB goes from strength to strength, the Olympic-sceptics have been left with little to hold on to. One area where London 2012 does deserve criticism is the ticketing which has been overly complex and unnecessarily frustrating. It was as a result of this frustrating process that I spent a weekend in London hoping to soak up what Olympics I could while, despite hours of effort, being ticketless.

For those still hoping to soak up some atmosphere, the only options are the BT London Live areas in Hyde Park and Victoria Park. I headed to the one in Hyde Park this weekend.

We joined a current of the ticketless flowing towards the entrance gates and anticipated a significant. But, as was my experience of London 2012 in general, queues were turned over pretty quickly due to the quantity of security checkpoints. In fact, we barely had time to stuff our faces with the food which would otherwise have soon been confiscated from us.

The London Live park itself was massive. BT had laid on five screens, each showing a different sport, including an enormous grandstand, plus various outdoor sports games and their own enormous BT building offering a bit of shelter for the inevitable downpours.

On the subject of downpours, and this is a boring but important point, BT had put wood chippings down across the entire site meaning that when the rain passed it wasn’t long before the ground was dry(ish) and could be sat on rather than it simply turning into a quagmire.

As well as the sporting action, BT had managed to arrange live music and, most impressively, various Team GB athletes to turn up on stage at the grandstand and do a live interview (conducted by Johnny Vaughn, the Paxman of Absolute Radio).

Over the course of the two days Jessica Ennis, Bradley Wiggins and Dani King showed up to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Andy Murray and Ben Ainslie winning their golds were also given the same treatment.

So, if you’re in London and have long given up on trying for tickets I can strongly recommend Hyde Park. The thousands of cheering, flag-waving fans watching on the big screens creates an atmosphere which, for second best, was not bad at all.

Some panoramic shots from my trip to Barcelona this Easter. 

Redundant ICT curriculum needs a revamp

Over the past few weeks I’ve been cobbling together a new website for the Oxford Student. One thing it has alerted me to is that after six years of primary school ICT lessons and 3 years at secondary school, my understanding of genuinely applicable computer skills are incredibly low.

I can remember having a couple of very basic web-focused ICT lessons in year eight which culminated in an internal exam with fact-based questions like “What does HTTP stand for?” rather than the far more useful tasks like changing a font to italic or making a background blue.

All I needed to do for this site was edit the CSS code for the theme. There were only a few basic things to change but I was absolutely stumped. I didn’t know where to look to change these things or, if I did find the right place, how to change them. It even took me a while to find where I could edit the code and, even in its basically laid out and user-friendly format, to my untrained eyes it was simply a labyrinthine mess.

After a lot of trekking through forums, and receiving several facetious comments from users unsympathetic towards my lack of knowledge, I finally managed to make the changes I wanted, but it shouldn’t have been so difficult.

Last August, Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman from Google, said that he was astonished by the fact that our ICT lessons focus on using software but not how it is made. He is absolutely right.

I have a range of skills on Word, Excel, Publisher and Access which are now very much forgotten (and probably utterly redundant). I agree with Schmidt that these are skills which can be learned at home through use of the software or, in the case of Access, taught if necessary.

It’s completely unacceptable that the ICT curriculum is so outmoded. Anyone should be able to pick up basic word processing and, even if it is taught, it should only take a few weeks. Those who need to use design software are unlikely no to receive training or embark on a specific course in such software. Basic web design is, however, likely to be a vital skill for many and provides access to a great deal of enterprise.

Not only this, but the ability to design a website or build basic software is a skill far more likely to be practiced and honed by students in their spare time than their ability to create a database or a pie chart.

As we look to focus our economy slightly more broadly and decrease our reliance on the financial sector, ensuring that we have a work force with relevant computer skills certainly puts us in good stead to move into an ever-expanding sector.