Class of 2020: privilege in college and how to solve it

Image: Magdalen college’s skyline. By Annabel Rogers

Michaelmas 2020 was something of a political awakening for me, or at least a strengthening of previously theoretical beliefs which had never been borne out in practice. I admit, I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of private schools, critical of the north-south divide, and aware of the class issues in the UK, but Magdalen still managed to surprise me: these problems exist, and they’re worse than I feared. I found Magdalen to be a melting pot of privilege, M&S food shopping, private-schools and, most frustratingly, pure political apathy. However, perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps my pseudo-socialism has blinded me to the truth, namely that Magdalen is a diverse, inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome. The statistics suggest otherwise.

According to the most recent Oxford University-wide admissions report (including data from October 2017 to summer 2019) Magdalen has improved in terms of diversity and social representation, but it still has a long way to go. For example, the percentage of state-school students admitted to the college was 52.8%, an increase of 5.6% from the previous admissions report (2015-2017). While an improvement, this goes to the heart of the problem: students from private school at Magdalen are seven times over-represented, considering only 7% of the school-age population attend private schools. Perhaps this is why there is a geographic bias in favour of the South, as this is where the most elite private schools are located, and also why there seems to be an impenetrable culture bubble in the college, which sees those separate from the group left isolated, as they don’t know the geography of London, or your brother’s friend at Eton, or your uncle who’s an equity partner at IBM. Aside from these big differences, it’s also the little things, like deciding to get takeaway for the 5th night in a row, or shopping at M&S rather than Aldi. 

Perhaps these little things wouldn’t matter if we were part of a huge community. However, as we know, Oxbridge is not like other universities: it has a college based system similar to a boarding school model which sees teaching, learning and living occur in a small space amongst a small community of people. This means the culture shock is far more acute, and damaging, than would otherwise be the case. It must be acknowledged that this problem is reflected throughout the Oxbridge colleges, and is often associated with a general attitude of institutional superiority compared to other universities, leading to a double-effect doctrine of isolation, where some students feel separate from both the university system and their college. 

The culture shock is far more acute, and damaging, than would otherwise be the case.

For a time I wondered if it was just me feeling this, but after discussing the issues with various members of the college (including those from different year groups) it’s clear that there is a real problem. One former Etonian even told me how Magdalen is “less diverse than Eton” and that it practically replicates the boarding school-environment. This admission emphasises the problem for all of us, not just those who feel isolated and left out. If Magdalen is not diverse, inclusive and welcoming, then all of us will be culturally unfulfilled and miss out on the true university experience – one where you meet new people from different backgrounds and learn from them. Without this, we are at a danger of reproducing the current Conservative cabinet, in which the majority are completely out of touch with the challenges working-class and poor people face, and who see themselves as ‘born to rule.’ Furthermore, without change, Magdalen will continue to be the natural home for the lucky members of the private school elite, facilitating this cycle of exclusion, isolation and, frankly, unhappiness for those who are not part of it.

Unfortunately the college leadership have failed to tackle the problem adequately. The recent COVID-19 pandemic (which I will discuss in future articles) has exacerbated the class, or more importantly, the wealth divide, and led to poorer members of the college feeling attacked from all sides. During Michaelmas term various Freshers were caught breaking social distancing rules, having attended several gatherings. Although they admitted that fines were an ineffective and morally wrong way to punish students for their behaviour, the senior leadership decided to issue them anyway, including the most expensive fine being given to a Fresher on a Crankstart bursary. Some may argue that the college had no other choice: punishments such as community service couldn’t be implemented due to Covid and the repeated nature of the offences warranted something more serious. 

This would be a fair argument, if it wasn’t advanced in a vacuum. The knowledge that students may be punished with fines is not exclusive to Magdalen, enabling each person to make their own decision about what they can afford, and therefore, how many risks they can take. For example, one student from another college has been fined significantly more than any given out at Magdalen (so at least we’re doing something right), but has remained unaffected due to their huge financial resources. The implementation of fines leads to a pay-as-you-go justice system in which some students are able to essentially buy out of punishment, while others are forced to skrimp and save to make up the money. The issue of fines goes to the heart of inequality at Magdalen, and it certainly isn’t good optics to have some of the poorest students struggling with overbearing fines while others are able to laugh it off purely due to their parents’ wealth.

The issue of fines goes to the heart of inequality at Magdalen, and it certainly isn’t good optics to have some of the poorest students struggling with overbearing fines while others are able to laugh it off, purely due to their parents’ wealth.

In spite of this, Magdalen has shown leniency in imposing Covid-19 restrictions.  The college has allowed each student to have one guest in their room, tackling loneliness, especially for those in smaller households. Unfortunately the college has undermined this good-will through their fines policy and the disproportionate punishment of Freshers (considering it is not just them breaking the rules), which has exacerbated inequality and led to the isolation which the guest policy sought to combat. 

There are clearly problems at Magdalen, but this is no reason to give up and think things won’t change. I intend, through this series of articles, to discuss solutions to the issues identified and I hope the college makes some effort to implement these. 

For me, a simple and easy way to improve things quickly would be to focus on the access and outreach scheme, ensuring it extends to narrowing inequality once students are at college, rather than just enabling disadvantaged students to apply in the first place, though this is of course a great start. I remember the wonderful access programmes I attended, from HE+, UNIQ, Sutton Trust and LPN, yet once I arrived at college, all of this disappeared. There was a real drop from attending UNIQ, where I was supported and made to feel truly at home in Oxford, to arriving at college and essentially being treated the same as everyone else, which is of course difficult when some students already feel so at home in this environment. I accept that this may have been particularly difficult due to the pandemic and the need for online workshops etc; however, it was still disappointing to see the previous support I’d received go unmatched at college. 

In the future, It would be a positive step to extend programmes such as Opportunity Oxford, since this year (according to Magdalen’s website) only four of these offers were made. Furthermore, Opportunity Oxford is an academic bridging course designed to ensure students from disadvantaged backgrounds are given the academic support needed to level the playing field, but I argue more social and cultural integration would be ideal. Students from these backgrounds are often not behind academically (note that they have achieved a place without the support given to others), but instead are culturally isolated and feel disconnected from an institution built on wealth, power, and privilege. Building on this, It would be great to see more sessions in college which involve students from all backgrounds, breaking the culture of isolation which many feel. Perhaps a way to do this would be to run “check your privilege” sessions (these have been done successfully by the National Citizen Service) which would stimulate dialogue on class, BAME, transgender, and many more issues, potentially being a humbling experience for some.

After all these ideas, one thing is certain: 2021 will provide the opportunity to really change things at Magdalen and, hopefully, at Oxford more generally. It is possible to create a culture where people feel included, welcomed and supported, be it by peers or staff. I’ve no doubt we can realise this – it’s just going to be hard work.

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