Pyjamas banned! How the media encourages harmful myths about Oxford University and stereotypes of its students
Pyjamas banned at Oxford University! The well-loved bedtime garments have been worn by some students whilst eating breakfast in the communal dining halls, leading to a furious letter decrying the “slovenly practice”. The offending articles of clothing were confiscated by University Officials in a city-wide raid of student rooms and burnt in a formal ceremony at an undisclosed location just after midnight. Unconfirmed reports suggest that numerous unintelligible Latin phrases were recited during the impromptu event by mysterious figures dressed head-to-toe in tweed.
This is, of course, not the case. It’s an exaggeration of recent overblown media reports on the Telegraph, BBC News Online and Mail Online websites concerning a letter posted in Brasenose College asking students not to wear PJs to breakfast. Collectively, the articles contain few facts and much gleeful stereotyping. The Telegraph article contains a number of quotes, not one of which is from a student who actually attends Brasenose. The Mail Online article contains an unnecessary formal photograph of David Cameron with some of his chums. My favourite has to be this Student News Ireland piece which claims a “pyjama craze” has taken off amongst the undergraduates and that they are worn to “other common mealtimes”. According to Francine Robb (a fellow Spilt Inc. writer and current Brasenose student whose passionate tweets inspired this article), the letter has been displayed for over a year, was meant as a polite reminder to students, inspired no such vicious outcry at the time and has been taken completely out of context. However trivial it may seem, this type of ‘churnalism’ provides an insight into the consistently negative way that Oxford University is portrayed in the media. People with no direct experience of the University would be forgiven for believing that the student experience is akin to an academic version of Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year sketch. It is depicted as an elitist institution situated in a grandiose set of buildings with numerous bizarre, outdated traditions. The students are made out to be privileged, middle-to-upper class and private schooled. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The latest statistics show that, of UK students, 57.7% of places went to applicants from the state school sector, with 42.3% going to applicants from the independent (or private) sector. So that means over half of the student population (from the UK) at Oxford University went to a state school. The University offers an incredibly generous package of bursaries and fee reductions for students from lower-income households. These are offered on a sliding scale, so that those from least fortunate backgrounds receive the most financial support. A new undergraduate student, who falls into the lowest band of household income (£0-£16,000), would receive a bursary of £4,300 and only pay a £3,500 tuition fee in their first year of study. This level of no-strings attached financial assistance is the best of any university in the country. That hypothetical student on the lowest household-income would receive support worth a whopping £22,000 over three years. It is one of the many measures the University has enthusiastically adopted in order to encourage more students from state schools and lower-income households to apply.
In addition, the University and individual Colleges work together to conduct a huge amount of access and outreach work in order to widen student recruitment. The University launched its own ‘Uniq’ summer school in 2010 with 500 places for state school students. By 2014, this ambitious programme will have doubled in size and cover every undergraduate course offered by Oxford. The week-long summer school provides an invaluable toe-in-the-water experience of university life for high-achieving state school students as they attend lectures, live in halls and find out more about the application process. Every year members of the University’s widening access team conduct over 1,000 outreach events across the UK for secondary school and Sixth Form students. Each college conducts their own Open Days which current students help lead, providing guided tours to eager soon-to-be applicants of the most important places in each College: the Porter’s Lodge, the Dining Hall, the Junior Common Room (social area), the library, a fully equipped student room and, last but definitely not least, the bar. There are also talks provided throughout the day explaining the admissions and interview process at Oxford. The Student Union (OUSU) set up a Target Schools initiative in which current students return to schools in their local area and deliver talks about their experiences at Oxford. I’ve taken part in this with a friend and it was an incredibly rewarding afternoon of answering questions and dispelling myths. Whilst I was still at Sixth Form I attended an extremely useful interview workshop day which helped demystify the overhyped Oxford interviews. There are also Exploring Oxford Days (a condensed version of the summer school), a Student Ambassador Scheme (the trained ambassadors work closely with young people to encourage them to further their studies and provide advice in the application to Oxford) and an e-mentoring system (students keep in touch with young people via email to provide encouragement and one-to-one support).
All this is routinely ignored by the media. As Francine Robb says, “The portrayal of Oxford students as being posh, ridiculous and out of touch with the real world can only harm all the incredible work done by outreach.” This has been demonstrated recently by the results of research conducted by the Sutton Trust. Nearly 80% of secondary school teachers underestimated the proportion of Oxbridge undergraduates that are from the state schools, believing it was less than half. Most shockingly, almost 20% of teachers stated they never advise their academically gifted students to apply to Oxbridge at all. A further 29% of teachers admitted they rarely advise their talented students to apply. The incessant stream of scaremongering media reports about Oxford (and Cambridge) University surely contributes to this lack of understanding and reluctance. It is a travesty that so many capable students are denied the opportunity to apply to Oxford or Cambridge because of this media campaign of misinformation and misrepresentation.
Thankfully, the proportion of state school students admitted to Oxford University is steadily increasing and with yet more money being spent on outreach programmes this looks set to continue. There are a number of reasons why these strange legends about Oxford and the criticisms of elitism exist – the history of the University, the traditions, the quality of education provided in the state and private sectors to name but a few. One easy-to-remedy solution that could be implemented in no time whatsoever would be a “quality control” test that media reports on the University have to pass before being published online or in print. This radical idea, which could be carried out by “editors”, would involve fact-checking, non-biased reporting of the truth and a considered approach to writing about the admissions and interview process. It would cost organisations no extra money and might even earn them some respect. I’m not going to hold my breath.