Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

The Oxford experience: myth or reality?

Having almost spent four years as an Oxford student, I have become well acquainted with the many myths that shroud this university in mystery, and I’d like to say I can now confidently balance these with the reality of the experience. When I arrived as a fresher in October 2020, the romanticised idea of studying in old libraries and walking amongst the dreaming spires quickly dissipated into endless Zoom calls and face masks. Since then, I have been able to enjoy what some might call the classic ‘Oxford experience’ with the return of balls, formals, and nights out. I even ended up missing the city and did not skip on a chance to tell anyone who would listen about all its weird and wonderful traditions as an exchange student in France and Spain. 

So it seems that the history of the city and all of the University’s traditions, both academic and social, are what define the experience. This is true at least from an outsider’s perspective. TikTok is awash with videos of students dressed to the nines and champagne toasting on a random Wednesday evening. Recent films such as The Riot Club and Saltburn have also aided in painting a picture of Oxford as a university filled with care-free upper-class students dividing their free time between dinners, the pub, and formal events.  

But this is far from the reality. In fact, provocative films like Saltburn and The Riot Club probably serve to damage Oxford’s image more than anything else. They fuel the idea, especially in the mind of prospective students, that Oxford is an institution for Boris Johnson wannabes (or psychopaths with a strange passion for graves) who have little experience or contact with the real world and the real people who live in it. The university is much more than dressing up in tuxedos and candlelight dinners. 

However, one very real and important issue that both films do highlight is the lack of social and ethnic diversity within the University. As Cherwell has reported, the 2023 application cycle was the first in which BAME students constituted the majority of applicants but 74% of students think that the university is not inclusive. It is certainly disparaging that although progress is being made at the entry level, current students do not feel that a wide-spread change has been made. In this way, it cannot be denied that Oxford is not representative of society beyond the University’s walls. Often, the official statements and policies which pledge commitment to diversity and inclusion feel like empty words when lecture halls, seminars and social spaces are filled with people who come from elite backgrounds and prestigious schools. 

This is relevant when we consider the cost of living the full ‘Oxford experience’.  Is it realistic to expect the average 18–to-21-year-old with a student loan that only just covers their rent to be able to attend multiple balls and formal events costing up to £150 a year? This is not even considering the cost of hiring white/black tie and only applies to the bigger events that are part of the social calendar. The reality is that Oxford can often be a social bubble which seems to float outside of the real world, a real world where millions of people in the UK alone are struggling to make ends meet. Leaving Oxford during term time or for the vacations for many students can feel like operating between two completely opposing worlds, and this can be an isolating experience when it feels like others spend their vacations skiing or in their grand family homes. For current and potential students, it is important to accept that Oxford is a unique institution that is steeped in history and tradition. However, we should not allow this history to be exclusive or reserved for a certain group. Everyone should feel like they can participate fully without having to sacrifice a part of themselves or their life outside of Oxford. 

It is also worth addressing a certain romanticization and mythification of the study culture here. TikTok is awash with day in the life videos which show students waking up in the early hours of the morning to spend the whole day and often night in a library working. These videos tend to use a love for the dark academia aesthetic to rationalise the ‘hustle’ and ‘grind’ culture at the university.  Although the libraries are beautiful and provide access to a limitless amount of academic resources, it is important not to romanticise the time commitment that weekly essays and deadlines demand. As with most social media content, these study videos are just one part of a single person’s life and cannot speak to a whole experience. They do not highlight the need for balance and extracurricular activities that help to prevent burnout and fatigue over an intense eight week term of back-to-back deadlines. It cannot be denied that the academic pressure at Oxford is unique in this sense, but we must also acknowledge that it is much more than this. When I look back at the last three years of my degree, I cannot deny that I spent a lot of time working, but my fondest memories are those spent taking part in the wider Oxford experience – the societies, the talks, and social events. Once more, it is key to wellbeing and welfare to acknowledge that seeing Oxford as a solely academic experience can contribute to the creation of a bubble. Academics is at the centre of the experience and is what contributes to the University’s reputation, but for the students it can be and is a lot more than this.

In summary, it cannot be denied that Oxford is more than just a university. The name and brand are globally recognised, and cultural production and history conjure up a plethora of images and associations for different people. In recent times, these associations have not always been the most positive, often showing Oxford as out of touch with the real world. While this may be true to some extent, it is important for us, as students at the university, to remember that the Oxford bubble floats within a real world and we should look to find ways in which the bubble can exist within reality, whether that is through diversity and inclusion programmes for current and prospective students or addressing concerns and worries by speaking to those who have the power to make real change. A myth may be a widely held collective belief, but it is our responsibility as those who have a real idea of the Oxford experience to convey the honest realities of it as far as possible. 

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles