The Uncomfortable Realities of studying at Oxford University

Writing in the media about what it’s like to study at Oxford is very polarized. You often find journalists reminiscing, with the rosiest of rose-tinted glasses about their days at Oxford. On the other hand, people who had a bad time at Oxford (for any number of reasons) sometimes appear to want the institution to be wiped off the face of the earth.  Oxford is condemned in the media as elitist, racist, and classist; the university meets these allegations with a barrage of its own press releases, emphasizing its “access” work and has recruited legions of student volunteers to defend and promote it.

What follows is not an attempt to smear Oxford, the university nor the city. On the whole, I have had a good time at Oxford: I have grown enormously as a person and I have made some of the most important friendships of my life here. Instead, I’m hoping to offer potential applicants a realistic overview of some of the disadvantages of studying here.

When I applied to Oxford initially I was naive, idealistic, and in many senses bought into the elitist “myth” of Oxford, that is, that anyone who is smart enough can make it. I came from a low-income background, worked hard at school, and thought I had “earned” it. As always, we don’t know everything at 18, and the real world is more complicated than that. My aim is not to discourage students like me from applying, but to provide them with the information to make an informed choice about their university applications. Knowledge is power.

1. The social environment can be very difficult

Students at Oxford apply there for a variety of reasons. Many come from elite schools where going on to Oxford is just what is expected of them. Others are put under immense pressure from their parents. Many other students at Oxford are affected by insecurity and anxiety, often related to their intelligence and work ethic. For some, it goes beyond that into concerns about popularity and status. Sure, high school never ends. Nevertheless, at Oxford the competitive culture is particularly intense. Learning to cope with a highly competitive environment is extremely beneficial if you want to pursue a career in a high-pressure field such as finance, law or academia. However, it comes at a cost: many Oxford student suffer from mental health problems, and sadly, many will have to pause their degrees as a result, often at great personal and financial cost. For those of us inclined towards a less high-flying career trajectory, the intense atmosphere can feel suffocating and alienating.

2. Undergraduate degrees are set up for a particular kind of student

The “typical” Oxford student lives in the south east of England, comes from a middle class background and has parents who can support them, whether it means helping them financially, helping them move in or out, or providing them with accommodation over the vacations. Unfortunately, if you are not from this kind of background, you can face some difficulties.

Let me explain. Oxford terms are very short: 8 weeks, followed by lengthy vacations. Generally, students are expected to “live in” their colleges for first, and sometimes subsequent, years. During this time you will have a licence which allows you to reside there during the term only, but not during the vacation.

However, as the Oxford saying goes, it’s a vacation not a holiday: you vacate your rooms and study elsewhere. If you have problems accessing housing during the vacation, you face a number of problems: you have to move out of your college room (so they can make money renting the rooms to conferences), find somewhere to live, find a way to pay for it, and you will likely have a load of challenging academic work to do on top of all this stress. It can be a lot to deal with for an 18 year old away from home for the first time. Sometimes colleges can be very helpful in these kind of situations, but unfortunately they often expect you just to get on with it.

3. You won’t always be taught by world-leading academics

You are more likely to be taught by a stressed graduate student or junior academic than a world-leader. Now, I have nothing against stressed grad student; in fact, they are some of the best and most conscientious tutors I’ve had here.

It’s just not what they tell you in the marketing material.

4. Levels of educational and welfare support are very variable

I touched on this in point two above. While most tutors and university staff are fundamentally good, conscientious and compassionate people, the collegiate nature of the university means that creating standardized welfare processes and policies is almost impossible. This means that some students are offered a lot of support, while others get very little.

Teaching can also vary a lot by college. Some colleges will offer students a lot of support with revision and study skills, while others will expect students to do this in their own time. If you go on an open day, it is worth asking tutors at prospective colleges what study support they offer students in your subject.

5. You feel like a tourist attraction

Oxford University is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the UK. Oxford is the seventh most visited city in the UK, with approximately 7 million visitors every year. As you might expect, the tourist industry is extremely important for the economy of the city.

However, many of the attractions tourists are most interested in seeing are buildings associated with the university, particularly Christ Church, the Bodleian library, Magdalen College, and so on. Students in academic dress often find themselves being asked to have their picture taken, which is unfortunate as students in academic dress in the summer are most likely to be sitting exams or a viva! The extent to which this will bother you depends a lot on personality, but it’s definitely something to be aware of before applying.

6. Homelessness in Oxford

Homelessness is a serious problem in Oxford, with 39% of homeless people in Oxford sleeping rough, and numbers of homeless people rising. This can be disconcerting for a new student at Oxford, and when you find yourself ensconced in the heart of the UK establishment and indulging in the glamour and excess of the Oxford social calendar, you might find yourself feeling more than a little bit of guilt and shame. Students respond to homelessness in a variety of ways, from generosity to obscene, outrageous behaviour. Being confronted with these extreme contrasts is something many students at Oxford have a hard time coming to terms with.

7. Oxford’s housing problem

Oxford struggles with a lack of affordable housing. The causes are complex, but can be understood on a basic level in terms of supply and demand: lots of people want to live here, but there are severe restrictions on building houses, with limits on how many storeys can be included in a building, and protections against building on the green belt (countryside). The result of this is that you can expect to pay around £5,500-£6,500 per annum to rent a room in a share house or flat. For comparison, the current maximum yearly maintenance loan is £8,200.

8. People will judge you for going here

Be honest, you were judging me as you read through this list, weren’t you?

Being an Oxford student comes with a variety of expectations and stereotypes. I’ve had people suddenly stop talking to me, I’ve had awkward silences, I’ve even had people refuse to believe me (!) These judgments do not compare with the immense privilege involved in being able to attend an institution like Oxford, nor the advantages it confers you. However, these small judgments and assumptions others make about you can be disconcerting, and even hurtful in some circumstances.

What’s more is that this is likely to hit you a lot harder if you come from a non-elite background: you may even find your family and friends back home struggling to relate to you, or may struggle to relate to them. If you choose to come here, this is something you will have to prepare yourself for emotionally.

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8 thoughts on “The Uncomfortable Realities of studying at Oxford University

  1. Robin Stanley Taylor

    I read this just out of interest having recently been declined a place at Selwyn College, Cambridge. When scrolling down to the bottom for the comment section I found your subscriptions and almost had a heart attack upon seeing my own name on there.

    When I clicked on it, however, I was taken to a Word Press error page and realised it was a different domain. Apparently there was another Robin Stanley Taylor who came and went before I even noticed.

    Incidentally I also follow Professor Norton’s weblog and indeed met the noble lord at a presentation some months ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. 艾凯特

    This almost exactly reflects my experiences at Cambridge – the two universities (despite being rivals somewhat) both suffer from issues caused in part by their highly competitive students and collegiate nature. I’ve enjoyed some fantastic opportunities and experiences, but then been incredibly frustrated and let down at other times.

    Liked by 1 person

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