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Oxford isn’t designed to change

Timea Iliffe considers the structural and cultural forces preventing progress in activism at Oxford.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of students across this university who have committed months and years of their degree to effecting change, and dozens of organisations and committees established to advocate for marginalised groups. And yet Oxford remains an institution gilded in privilege, clinging to its own traditions, and each year grinding out a fresh supply of new scandals and statistics for Guardian columnists to write op-eds about.

Every university has problems; racism, classism and misogyny are obviously not unique to Oxford (although, as in so many other things, our global reputation precedes us). But Oxford is perhaps unique in how successfully it has managed to co-opt, sideline, and subdue the movements that could force the institution into any genuine change. The constant cycling of students through the university structure combined with the perpetual, barely manageable workload means students simply do not have the energy or the capacity to fight for reform. Across colleges and outside them, Oxford relies on the rapid turnover and continual exhaustion of potential student activists to insulate itself from the possibility of actually having to improve.

JCR presidents and representatives do not serve longer than a year, which is rarely enough time to make significant changes to an institution almost a millennium old – but more than enough time for them to burn out. Societies set up to advocate for causes from decolonisation to fighting sexual assault similarly face rapid turnover of members and the fleeting attention of the student body. And students are, foremost, just that – students, who can only engage in activism as an unpaid, passion-driven commitment alongside a full-time degree. They have to balance hammering against institutional inertia with writing essays and applying for internships and making it to morning practice. And going to Plush.

The Student Union, with its stated mission of advocating for Oxford’s students and a sizeable budget with which to do so, might be another source of genuine efforts for change. In Oxford’s case, however, it wavers between benignly irrelevant and near- invisible to actively harmful, staffed by bureaucratic professionals with almost no understanding of how the university actually operates. The sabbatical officers, who in many cases are genuinely passionate about changing the university, end up being absorbed into institutional structure, paid by the university to attend dozens of meaningless committee meetings and perhaps organise a coffee and cake social, or give away free condoms.

It’s not as if the demands are unreasonable. Consider putting an actual person of colour on your syllabus. Stop hiring rapists. Take down literally one statue. But for the old, almost invariably white, and often phenomenally wealthy heads of houses and university leaders calling the shots, these asks are often too much to contemplate. All they have to do is say no and keep going. The earnest, enthusiastic students emailing them petitions and passing JCR motions are going to be at this university likely for three or four years at most. The Dean who thinks Rhodes Must Fall is a fascist organisation run by quivering blue-haired teenagers or that Andy Orchard is the victim of a terrible witch-hunt is going to be here for decades.

As someone who has been in Oxford’s activist spaces for the better part of my degree, it is difficult not to be pessimistic. And at times it is difficult to rationalise caring so much about Oxford beyond the fact that it is the community we have the (mis)fortune to be a part of. Advocating for change implies some vision of a changed future to strive for, a diversified, decolonised Oxford, equal-access and equal-opportunity. But there is no broken system to be fixed. Oxford is doing what it is designed to do: reconstruct and renew Britain’s elite first, act as an educational institution second.

This is not to prescribe hopelessness. I can say without irony that activism, done genuinely, has been the source of some of the richest, most valuable and most deeply fulfilling experiences I’ve had, and I have found and connected with people I would never otherwise have had the privilege to meet. But if there is a piece of unsolicited advice I can give as someone leaving Oxford next month to the more earnest first-years who are getting involved with OULC or FemSoc, or trying to diversify their curricula or, God forbid, trying to make positive change at the Union, it is to understand where your goals should lie. Do not define your victories by your capacity to alter fundamentally a place older than the Aztec Empire. Have meaningful conversations with your peers, foster spaces of genuine solidarity and care, engage with the community outside the University. Understand that an increase in energy is not always going to translate into an increase in results. Most importantly, do not exhaust yourself with the fantasy that there is some egalitarian, diverse, liberal Oxford hiding behind the university’s walls, if only we could work together to tear them down. Oxford is and always has been less about promoting education than reproducing the privilege that sustains it. Conservatism is not a symptom of some healable sickness within the body of Oxford. It is in its bones.

Image credit: Zachary Elliott

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