Having written last week about apprenticeships, I thought I’d turn my eye to what might be perceived as the other extreme - post-18 - applying to Oxford or Cambridge universities.
Over my career, I’ve coached many and varied 17 year olds through the application process, from a published Etonian to a Stoke-on-Trent milkman’s daughter. As my own daughter turned twelve this weekend, I was reminded of how on the day she was born, when I was an energetic young English teacher, a certain hopeful turned up on our doorstep for his practice interview the day before leaving for the real thing at Teddy Hall, Oxford; to be fair, his housemaster had furnished him with a celebratory bottle of champagne having heard the baby had arrived, but the tight timing reminds me of how important this time of year is in a school’s sixth form calendar, and how busy students and staff are in the preparation.
All three of those applicants were successful; of course many were, but there were plenty, also, who weren’t. Teachers are fond of declaring Oxbridge applications to be a lottery, and there is certainly any number of excellent students who slip through the nets, for better or worse. Some who fail to be offered a place first time around go on to reapply post-A Level, and make a fantastic success of their academic careers, all the more hopeful and hungry for learning.
What I’m wondering today, is, why is it such a big deal these days? Why are two British universities still seen as the jewels in our academic crown? Aside from Oxbridge, Britain consistently has the world’s top Universities though these two rise to the top consistently… I guess age, longevity, is one reason. The quirky traditions, the funny names for all manner of things, the often achingly beautiful buildings crammed into a relatively small acreage, all add up to a most appealing place to wish to spend one’s early adulthood. For a generation of us, Brideshead did us/Oxford no favours. Even before Harry and Hogwarts popularised the likes of formal hall at Christ Church, and the idea of learning in a rarified environment, the mystique of these places had a pull. Nonetheless, perceived glamour aside, most 17 year olds want to push themselves to be what they are told is the best, to reach for the stars … even if they don’t actually want to study astronomy itself.
Here’s a series of articles and opinions found in a very basic search - Why Oxbridge? - some are from from swaggering students, some are from broadsheets with particular leanings, some are from summer school suppliers, which is not to say that by linking, I endorse their courses. First off, the academic angst around applying: