Wednesday, 18 January 2012

I want to have a moan about the publicity around this young lady...

... who recently wrote to Magdalen College, Oxford, with her own letter of rejection. In it she describes how the university has failed her selection procedure, and she wishes it every success in the future.

See the BBC article here. It's clearly a click-generating article, but I really don't see how the BBC can justify something which is so close to Daily Mail fodder.

She is very young, and clearly has a chip the size of Gloucestershire on her shoulder, for which we can excuse her. But she is also a fool. Outwardly the letter is humorous (if rather immature), but the reaction of mocking a rejection letter has clear undertones of reprisal and passive aggression.

My critique:

She says the interview settings are intimidating to state school applicants. What are the universities supposed to do, knock down all of that listed and mediaeval architecture? Should all interviews now be conducted in a cardboard box, or perhaps a leaky, prefabricated hut? Yes, give the students what they're used to; don't give them a beautiful environment they can aspire to work in. Squalor or architectural repugnance. That ought to make them more comfortable.

Also... if she's going to study law, how is she going to cope with the intimidating nature of the court room? The Old Bailey will be a definite no-go. "Dear Judge, I'm sorry to tell you that your application to exact justice during this trial has been rejected. You were too intimidating."

And she says she wants to go to UCL which, coincidentally, isn't all that far removed from Oxbridge. Collegiate system? Yep. Big, intimidating buildings? Yes. High proportion of private school intake? Yes! Full of geeky, high achievers? Yes! Weird, stuffed body of Jeremy Bentham to preside over meetings? Yes (Okay, Oxbridge don't have one of those, but I'd class it in the strange rituals category). Drinking societies? Yes! Elitist social groups? Of course!

My next gripe is with her comment that the people at Oxford took the admissions process too seriously. Personally, if someone had to make a decision that affected the rest of my life, I would want them to take it very seriously!

"I felt like the only atheist in a gigantic monastery."

I think I know what she is talking about. I had this problem at high school. I felt as if I was disadvantaged, perhaps a bit poor when compared to my friends who had swimming pools, large houses and expensive things. Then I realised that financial inequality wasn't the problem. These were nice people; they were my friends and they were happy to share what they had. My problem was my own - I had a massive chip on my shoulder about my situation, which no one else could control. But chips get you nowhere. What matters is what you do with the lot you're given.

"It was while I was at interview that I finally noticed that subjecting myself to the judgement of an institution which I fundamentally disagreed with was bizarre."

Unfortunately, every time anyone attends an interview for anything career-related they must subject themselves to the judgement of companies and institutions. Sometimes we have to work for people we do not get on with (and I know about that!!), sometimes we have to be in situations that are new and frightening to us, but the end result is that overcoming such obstacles improves your career prospects/income/stability and ultimately freedom. I've learned this over and again recently. Everyone encounters aspects of the world they disagree with, but there are better ways of combating them than a patronising letter full of holy arguments. Further, why does she fundamentally disagree with Oxford? Because it is old? Because it is elitist? A company governed by market forces cannot afford to employ terrible managers, just as a university whose funding depends of academic excellence cannot afford to admit academic underachievers. If we say that Oxbridge is a bad sort of elitist for selecting academically-able people, then we are assuming that academic performance is the only measure of cleverness or ability in anything, which is very wrong! 

I should say now that I have taken two degrees at Cambridge, so obviously my reaction is biased. But don't get me wrong, like. I'm all for mocking the silliness of Oxbridge. There are rituals and rules with very little reason behind them; there's pomp without circumstance. There are geeks, autistic savants, improbably ancient profs, absent-minded dons, stuffy nobs, arrogant rah (posh people), boaties (rowers), child genii at both universities, and these are all ripe for teasing. But there are also a large number of very normal, very nice people who are as far from snobbish as you can get - and I would add that a great deal of the stereotypes mentioned above can also be rather personable. Further, the idea that either Oxford or Cambridge have some sort of vendetta or pursue active discrimination against state school pupils is a myth propagated by the media.

The subject of private/state school divide is often joked about, but in all my years here I've only ever encountered tutors and supervisors who will offer students a place based on academic potential. I've seen one tutor jump up and down with excitement because he was so pleased to have found his next genius in the shape of a state school student. Indeed, the drive to recruit students from poorer backgrounds has been so strong in recent years that privately educated students began to feel they were the ones being discriminated against. I don't think this is actually happening at either university (even if certain colleges have a reputation for bias in favour of state school applicants), though the competition for places was certainly increasing before the tuition fees hike.

True, if you've had an expensive education then it is more likely you'll gain better examination results, and these will be a helper towards your admission. But interviewers are not ignorant of this at all; they are forcibly made to think about it during their admissions training. Plus, everyone gets an interview at Oxbridge, and that's the student's opportunity to take control and shine (but it's not the only thing you're judged on). And confidence? Some argue that independent schools give students more confidence than state and that this is an unfair advantage. Private education gave me nothing in the way of that. I was the quietest, shyest and most softly spoken person ever to have left my school (most of the time I think I was embarrassed to be alive), but they still let me in.

I can see why some find Oxbridge suspicious, especially if they perceive it as some sort of closed shop. But there are exclusive groups in all walks of life that I'll never be allowed to enter into. I'll never be in a knitting circle, a football team, a bankers' dinner or a lawyers' lunch. And after my own Brooker-style rant, I probably won't be in the trad publishing group, either!! But that's okay. There are other ways to succeed and find happiness.

But enough about my pro-Oxbridge whining - her letter is silly. She's young and has been a very easy target for me. What concerns me, however, is the suspicion about two excellent institutions that this sort of coverage garners.

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