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Let Oxford continue its socio-economic apartheid: A poor-kid’s view from the inside.


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Image credit ox.ac.uk

The University of Oxford makes headlines on a weekly basis, usually for research. This week, it’s because the media is claiming that the University of Oxford is not living up to liberal expectations of equality regarding its admission of certain students from poor and minority racial backgrounds.

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For this piece, I hope you keep in mind that my family is from a small rural town in Caroline County, Maryland. One of the US’ poorest counties during the 1990s. I wasn’t barefoot and hungry poor, but we have struggled to get to where we are now. Regardless, I was able to get accepted and take a place at Oxford University for my doctoral degree. It hasn’t always been as pretty as the city. So I’m writing this piece to be deliberately provocative and discuss why Oxford does this, and what can be done about it.

Now, it is worth mentioning explicitly, I’m a student at St. Peter’s College. I can honestly say that the college was always welcoming to students such as myself. I knew many St. Peter’s students who felt that they didn’t belong “at Oxford” because of their background (either racial or economic), but we all found a home at St. Peter’s. The students and administration were always honest and open. It is, without a doubt, the only college I can honestly suggest a student apply to if they don’t come from the traditional Oxford stock.

However, more than once, I felt that it was an oasis among a desert of gold…

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The Guardian has reported on the admissions practices of Oxford and Cambridge over the past few days. One key take-away from their data is that “Data released to the MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, under the Freedom of Information Act shows that 82% of offers from Oxford and 81% from Cambridge went to students from the top two socio-economic groups in 2015, up from 79% at both universities five years earlier.”

There are a few reasons for that, which I’ll unpack first, before I explain why it is that I think Oxford university has the responsibility to reject certain low-income students.

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First, we shouldn’t forget, Oxford is the best university in the world by most current rankings. It has been one of the top universities in the world since the West created higher education. It has also been an elite university, often only accepting the richest into its hallowed halls.

It’s been well documented that the children of the wealthy do better academically. As such, it makes sense that if Oxford is taking the highest achieving students on paper, that these are most likely to come from wealthy areas. I’m not seeking to deflate the arguments for affirmative action policies here, it’s just a fact that if we are demographic blind, the highest testing students are more likely to come from wealthy backgrounds.

But this is a “don’t hate the player hate the game approach”. And in this day and age, many believe that Oxford runs the game.

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In addition, Oxford is not cheap. As a student who started there a few years ago as a DPhil student, it is one of the most expensive places I’ve lived. The cost of living is extremely high (the highest in the UK), and the cost of attendance is as well. The cost is a serious deterrent for many as well. Some students who have the intellectual capability to thrive at Oxford don’t apply because they know they can’t afford it. Given my student loan debt, I applaud their foresight.

Many of the students who are there can easily afford it as their family are worth enough money that the expendable income alone can pay for fun evenings and frolicking on the streets of Oxford. I have known multiple students who were given cars and even houses as free gifts from their parents or in-laws. Not because the student needed them, just to mark some new occasion.

For myself, that is absurd. I bought my first car from my grandfather, the idea that I’d be given a house is inconceivable to me.

Many of my fellow students stuck out like sore thumbs because we did not have the upper-class British accent (I’m an American with a proud hint of a southern accent) and didn’t come pre-packaged with the social knowledge of other students. Being a poor kid at Oxford is a lot like being a protestant in a catholic church. There’s a lot of ritualistic behaviour and Latin, and you’re amazed by all the gold.

The professors are also similar. Oxford is well known for hiring OxBridge graduates (those who graduated from Oxford or Cambridge). As such, any tutelage that you get also comes from someone who basically comes from a wildly different culture.

This added distance is unhealthy. Oxford students have a high rate of suicide due to the massive amount of stress that they’re under to achieve. Feeling alone because you effectively don’t come from the same socio-economic background as your peers and supervisors is not conducive to breaking the trend of self harm that haunts Oxford.

St. Peter’s College, Oxford

For these reasons, I think that Oxford is right to exclude low income students UNLESS IT COMMITS ITSELF TO FUNDING STUDENTS TO THE EXTENT THAT THEY WILL BE ABLE TO LIVE AN EQUAL QUALITY OF LIFE AS THEIR PEERS. No, this doesn’t mean the university should be buying houses for students. It means that the university should be paying all tuition and lodging costs as well as a generous stipend for living expenses above costs of housing. Until the University of Oxford as a whole is conducive to lower-class students, they shouldn’t be taking them on. Oxford isn’t ready.

If Oxford wants to address the issue of class gaps at the University, it needs to address them head-on.

Meanwhile, if the media and society want to chastise Oxford and Cambridge for who they admit, maybe they should consider that people like me really don’t belong at OxBridge. OxBridge is a rich-kid’s game. It isn’t cut out for someone like me. I learned that the hard (and expensive) way. In the end, I’ve thrived and my career has done great because of Oxford. But the fact is that it wasn’t because I was at home there, it was because I was determined to best the rich-kid peers that surrounded me.


Let Oxford continue its socio-economic apartheid: A poor-kid’s view from the inside. was originally published in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com | The new platform for citizen response. on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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