Cat Jones, of the Oxford University Student Union, told the Times Higher Education (THE) that some students work in excess of 50 or 60 hours a week, with some being set “three essays in one week”.
“At those levels, that’s clearly at the detriment of rigour, welfare and pedagogy,” she told the THE. “At that point, you are very much an essay machine; you are meeting deadlines rather than having time to learn and to reflect on what you are meant to be learning.”
Well I was at Oxford (did I mention this, ever?) and there were definitely periods when we had to write at least two essays a week on the English Literature course, especially in the first year when we were also learning Anglo-Saxon.
Also the stuff we had to read wasn’t Maya Angelou, or The Further Adventures of My Little Pony or My Brother, Myself by Phil Andros, like the English literature undergrads at Yale want to study in preference to Milton and Wordsworth who are too male, white and straight. It was often old and written in archaic language: Gawain and the Green Knight; the Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia; The Faerie Queene [which is, like, Elizabethan for The Fairy Queen] etc.
This, I recall, interfered quite massively with our drinking, partying, rowing and other distractions. Why, it was almost like the old dudes – the dons, the fellows, the professors etc – actually thought we’d come to Oxford (currently ranked number one for English Literature in the world – just thought I’d drop that one in) to study and expand our intellects.
Anyway, here’s the thing. When occasionally we found ourselves exposed to undergraduates from lesser institutions – my mates Tom, Gary and co down the road at Bristol, say – one thing struck us Oxonian visitors quite forcibly. Even though the Bristolians seemed burdened by a culture of tedious, American-style presenteeism – that is, like schoolkids, they were expected to go to lots and lots of lectures – they were generally given far, far fewer essays to write. Closer to one a fortnight than two a week.
This, in turn, had quite a significant effect on their intellectual prowess. I’m not saying that the undergraduates at Bristol, Exeter, Durham, Edinburgh and the other top-ranking non-Oxbridge universities were thick. (Gary, for example, is a top QC; Tom is about the third richest solicitor in Oxfordshire; another of their Bristol friends went on to found Britain’s most successful shirt company) But academically we Oxonians – and the same is true of Cantabrigians, ie Cambridge undergrads – definitely had the edge. And this wasn’t merely because we’d been admitted by competitive examination. It’s because we were forced on our courses to work harder and think harder.
Anyone can sit on their arse through a lecture nursing a hangover. It requires as much or as little of your attention span as you are prepared to give.
With an essay that just isn’t possible. You have to do lots of preparatory reading. Then you have to construct an argument. Then you have to write it down and – at Oxford and Cambridge – prepare to have it ripped to shreds in debate with your tutor or supervisor.
That’s why Oxford and Cambridge graduates are the cream: more sought after by employers, often easily discernible in conversation. At a key stage in their intellectual development they were forced to read a lot, write a lot and generally work their butts off in an environment more highly competitive than elsewhere. Their cleverness was as much made as born.
If Oxford undergraduates can’t deal with this any more then maybe they should reconsider and become diving instructors in the Maldives or yoga teachers or – why not? – consider dropping out and going somewhere slacker like Bristol.
There’s no shame in the latter. All my friends from Bristol are way way richer than me. The only problem is they’ll never really live down the fact that they didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge. And that’s sad.