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The scout system at Oxford must be scrapped

The Fay School is an independent, coeducational boarding school located near Boston, Massachusetts. It enrols students between grades seven to nine in a boarding program, that is, the British equivalent of years eight to ten. Among other things, Fay students are expected at that age (eleven through 14 years old) to take care of their own laundry, clean their own rooms, and dispose of their own trash, as they board year long as the school.

Who knew, that expecting a 12 year old to be able to manage a cordless handheld vacuum cleaner to suck up spilt ramen powder could be such an easy request? Apparently, Oxford’s colleges thinks much less of us, and that its students, the supposed best and brightest in all of Britain, if not the world, are less competent at cleaning up their crisp crumbs and bread dust than prepubescent children.

As we know, each college has their own system of housekeepers, known colloquially as scouts. Scouts perform a variety of housekeeping duties for each individual student’s room typically during morning hours. Scouts also clean and maintain a number of communal living areas, such as kitchens, bathrooms, and showers. The system has existed nearly as long as Oxford has, and well into the 60s and 70s, scouts were still openly referred to as “servants,” bringing bottles of milk to the doors of students.

To be fair, while Fay might not get parents rolling in to complain of the dreadful living conditions that their students might have to live in, it’s not entirely unimaginable to picture Oxford mothers railing one out at a college principal for daring to ask their child, god forbid, unclogs their own sink, is it? That being said, this comparison is wholly unnecessary. If we have reduced ourselves to asking each other to perform basic duties such as taking care of ourselves, the same way children half our size and age do, which apparently we have, we should actively recognise that there is something seriously wrong with the way the university is shaping our behaviour and expectations.

The claim, furthermore, that scouts fill a “necessary” role, is ludicrous. Imagine any other world-renowned institution telling its students that they need to hire cohorts upon cohorts of cleaners to vacuum their floors them and scrub their windows to a shine. They would be laughed at, as Oxford is. A concept straight out of Downtown Abbey, it is, and should be, considered an ancient practice. The practice continues, regrettably so, at Cambridge University, and Durham University, where they are otherwise known as “bedders.” Outside of these three universities, there is no equivalent at any other major educational institution in the entire world.

Why that is not concerning to the main body of administrators and students at Oxford, I will never understand. The former equivalent system at Trinity College Dublin, where scouts were known as “skips,” was abandoned in the 70s, when British civilisation also typically abandoned other archaic practices such as restricting university admission to men only. Apparently this idea of progress has been lost on Oxford. The idea that adults, or anyone over a reasonable age, cannot be expected to clean after themselves, and instead, require other grown adults to clean after them, in spaces as small as college rooms, is utterly absurd.

The system of scouts also removes any sense of privacy, and automatically places students and scouts on a hostile ground over this effect. As if the smattering of CCTV cameras that spy on every nook and cranny of your college were not enough, the scout system is the icing on the cake that reminds you that the college you live in will never truly be your home. We are forced to give daily access to our rooms. The positive spin is typically presented as the requirement for scouts and students to develop a “trusting” relationship. I suppose that is the best way of phrasing the concept of being forced to agree to a system in which the posessions of students, both valuable and not valuable, are constantly accessible. This, along with the fact that many days of the week, scouts often have nothing to do, combine to create a naturally toxic relationship between scouts and students.

This occurs especially potently when scouts have to deal with the vibrant community of the spoilt—they face mockery and judgment from students who are faced with the existential conundrum of wanting everything done for them, but at the same time, naturally desiring privacy over their baubles, and so the cooking pot of rage boils. Reports of students unleashing verbal tirades on scouts, who sometimes do not speak English as a first language and thus don’t even understand what is being said, are not unheard of. Fortunately, we can see colleges such as Jesus addressing the issue at hand properly, which have been reported in the past to force scouts to adopt ‘Anglicised’ names, and colleges such as Christ Church who have been reported to force their scouts to learn English. In this manner, these two wonderful colleges have ensured that the scouts can receive a good scolding from entitled students and understand it too!

If all of the above were not concerning enough, what we should be most shocked at is that many scouts are not even paid a living wage. The Oxford Living Wage, separated from the national living wage costs because of the ridiculously high costs of living in Oxford, is £8.93 per hour, below the London living wage of £9.75 per hour. Despite this having been made clear by the Oxford City Council numerous times over the past and visibly declared on their online platforms, Oxford continues to pay its scouts below the Oxford Living Wage. More than 2,000 employers in Oxfordshire have signed up to the living wage scheme, and yet, according to vacancies advertised online, most colleges continue to pay their scouts below said wage. Hertford, which I regret to mention, because I suspect that they pay their scouts above the par in comparison to most other colleges, pay their scouts £8.45 an hour. It is reported that numerous other colleges continue to pay their scouts £7.85 an hour.

Harvard students famously campaigned for living wages for their own staff between 1998 and 2002. This past autumn, 750 workers went on strike, with the support of numerous student groups, to protest minimum wages that were not considered enough to afford a decent living, i.e. below the living wage. As a result, numerous dining halls closed all over Harvard, with the majority of the students on campus standing in solidarity with the workers, until the protest ended all dining halls return to normal operation. Unfortunately, I have the disappointment in believing that the same protest could never happen at Oxford, understandably so, as students study in one of the shortest year long undergraduate programmes ever, with tiny eight week terms.

The existence of terrible treatment outside of already terrible wages is no conspiracy. In a Cherwell investigation two years ago, incidents reported from scouts all over Oxford including instances of being forced to work from nine to 11 overtime with no compensation or apology, contracts that prevent scouts from having a lunch break, scouts forced to wear makeup and skirts, and persistent harassment from managers. Scouts themselves also lack the capacity to bargain or even remotely protest. The scouts at Oxford certainly have not unionised, and I suspect that they fully lack the ability to do so.

Reports at Jesus College of the harassment of scouts and the complete denial and gaslighting of scout concerns goes towards this belief. It is also well understood that scouts often refrain from discussing their wages or their working conditions in fear of losing their job, a state that no person should have to experience.

Finally, it is listed as a final resort, often by college principals themselves who relish in receiving housekeeping in their own college accommodations to free up time for their exhausting duties as revered heads of colleges of Oxford, that the colleges need tending to over the holidays. It is heavily ironic that college principals deliver platitudinous sermon after sermon about how learning takes precedence above all at that their colleges are first and foremost institutions of learning. If I were a wanderer with no prior knowledge of the colleges, I would not be able to tell the difference between most colleges at Oxford, and vaguely colonial hotels.

Then again, when colleges become displayed on TripAdvisor and get five star ratings for services, I begin to question myself if I am in a college that I am supposed to call my home, or a Hilton stuffed with tutors and an only somewhat meaningful history. How different really, are term stays from eight-week bookings at the Marriot?

The system of scouts makes a laughing stock out of the University of Oxford and each of its individual colleges. I would say that it contributes to the outsider picture of Oxford students as posh and spoilt that puts so many off even bothering to apply, but how far would that picture really be from reality? How the system remains to the present day confuses me because I thought that the university had moved past inflting the egos of the talcum-powdered brats that genuinely believe that less time spent scrubbing the mirror clean of last night’s spilt Dom Perignon means more time reading Isaiah Berlin and Sartre. Apparently, this is not the case. Get a grip, Oxford.

Editor: An earlier version of this article made unsubstantiated allegations of trafficking which have now been removed.

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