Love it or hate it, it really is another country

May 5, 2006

The Times Higher asks academics what inspires and irritates them about Oxbridge and notes a certain shyness about being identified

* "What I find most annoying about Oxbridge is the assumption that big is necessarily beautiful or, rather, best. The medieval rules, feasts and processions are quaint and strange enough to encourage undergraduates to attempt silly acts such as jumping off bridges into shallow water. It is, however, inspiring to think that in a few thousand years these venerable institutions will be just two among many ancient institutions, if universities have not been killed off by e-learning."


* "I feel sorry for Oxbridge students who go on into the academic world. Recently, we had a number of positions to which some Oxbridge students applied. They looked good on paper, but they had no teaching experience, no knowledge of larger teaching environments and they were shocked by the harsh realities of normal academic life. As these poor students struggled at the interview, I thought how badly they had been prepared for the real world and how they would be better off staying in the insulated world of Oxbridge. The final irony was that one of them was almost hired because some members of the hiring panel were convinced that because the person had been to Oxbridge they must have some hidden superior quality."


* "The thing I find most annoying about Oxbridge is the paranoia it encourages in so many people who haven't been there. Like Jews and Freemasons, Oxbridge graduates are frequently suspected of participating in a nefarious conspiracy against the rest of the world. It is often advisable to conceal the fact that one was educated there because if the truth leaks out, one is likely to be dismissed as a parasitical drone, and a howling snob to boot. The thing I find most inspiring about Oxbridge is simply its survival, over more than eight centuries, as a centre for scholarship.

Admittedly, the learning - and teaching - has not always been of the highest calibre. But the light has never gone out entirely. In a world battered by war, plague, famine, economic recession and frequent spasms of sectarian witch-hunting, this is a considerable achievement."


* "I have always operated outside Oxbridge, so even though I've used their facilities from time to time, the taint of exclusion runs through my feelings about the two universities. What is inspiring is knowing that great minds have worked there, and may be at work there still. What inspires envy is that it looks as though people there are better resourced than anyone else. What annoys is that these same people seem to feel that they need even more resources. I have also encountered people who have complacently believed in their own and their colleagues' superiority, when there was no evidence to support the assertion."


* "The most inspiring thing about Oxbridge is the many excellent academics who remain aloof from attempts to reduce academic life to the bean-counting of the research assessment exercise and instead focus on genuine research.

This is a luxury they can afford. The rest of us scurry around trying to keep our masters happy while simultaneously trying to do the research we believe is valuable. The most annoying thing about Oxbridge is the lack of appreciation sometimes displayed by both individuals and the institutions themselves, for the privileged position they occupy in terms of funding and reputation based on historical precedent. I suspect that many Oxbridge academics would not last long in less well-off institutions and would find recruiting and teaching large numbers of less than straight-A students quite a challenge."


* "Annoying: It's like a private club, and only the initiated have any chance of landing a job. Privilege breeds privilege. Inspiring: The Oxbridge tutorial system takes us back to Socratic dialogue. That is how education should be, but for all."


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