A World of Gap Years and Gilt Frames

From Planet 228

by Polly Manning

Congratulations to Polly Manning who won the 2017 Planet Young Writers’ Essay Competition. In her essay, she tells the story of why she transferred from Oxford University to Swansea University after only nine days among the dreaming spires. She argues how higher education in Wales should present a progressive alternative to the cult of the Russell Group and the embedded privilege it represents.

The envelope came through our letterbox on the 6th of January. ‘Dear Miss Manning, I am delighted to be writing to you with the good news that...’ My parents hugged me and my dad nearly cried – it had been a long wait. I’d just been accepted into Oxford University, only three months after the university was named the best in the world. The letter was the end result of a long project, childhood dreaming of the romantic spires, the thrilling debates and – you guessed it – of prestige. The interview process had been demanding – I broke down in tears in one – but I emerged triumphant.

Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College © Tejvan Pettinger (bit.ly/2x5DmMb)

Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College © Tejvan Pettinger (bit.ly/2x5DmMb)

And still, holding my acceptance letter, I couldn’t shake an overwhelming sense of dread. Wasn’t this what I had worked so hard for, what I had yearned for since primary school? It felt almost ungrateful to feel so deflated. I read over the letter again and again. It congratulated me on my ‘excellent achievement’, a slightly pompous heralding, I see now, of what was to come.

I grew up in Carmarthenshire, a county with one of the highest rates of Welsh speakers in Wales. It includes a significant number of Plaid voters, and is home to a large agricultural community. My family moved to Wales when I was four years old, and I consider the country to be my home. So, I chose to apply to Oxford’s Jesus College, which has historical links to Wales.

I visited the College as part of an offer-holders’ day that summer, and found that many of my fears drifted away. People didn’t seem that ‘posh’, and there were even some Welsh speakers among the group. We were sat down for an introductory talk opposite the beautiful college building, and informed that our entry year contained the highest number of state-educated pupils for forty years – at 59.2%. The statistic made us proud, and a little smug. I began to imagine myself strolling about the quads with confidence underneath the clouds of purple wisteria, chatting with my classmates, slipping in to this strange, grand world without disturbing its imposing surface. Besides, people had already started to look at me with awe when I told them which university I’d be heading to in the autumn. I told them with pride how Oxbridge had changed, how I met a lovely third-year with a Leeds accent who had come from one of the most deprived schools in the country. In short, I was willing to forget some aspects of my politics for the sake of my ego.

The Michaelmas term started at the beginning of October, and I arrived at the College excited to start a new phase in my life. I was shown to my room where I unpacked my books, and then said goodbye to my parents. That evening, I was introduced to the other students I was to spend the next three years studying alongside. A group of third-years took us to a local bar to meet and socialise. I exchanged the standard talk with one of my fellow freshers, then he asked me where I was from. I explained that I originally came from a town in south Wales, just over from the Valleys. ‘Oh, I visited there once,’ said the boy, and he smiled. ‘It seems like the sort of place you’d get stabbed’. Before I had time to process this comment, he launched into an explanation of how he had come to Oxford after a gap year travelling through South America. He insisted that I should do the same sometime, as if this was an economic feasibility for most people. I met another classmate who, though friendly and talkative, explained to me that he had come (also after a gap year) from a private school in London where the fees average just under £7,000 per term.

In fact, over the next couple of days I worked out that I was the only student on my course at the College to have been completely state-educated. The statistics we were given pre-enrolment, lauding the accessibility of an Oxford education, began to seem laughable. I felt sick, but persevered. The next evening, after a full day of administration and more socialising, we students were called to meet in one of the College rooms in smart dress for pre-dinner drinks with two of our Professors. They had laid out a table-full of champagne bottles and poured us all glasses as we talked. As I stood there, surrounded by portraits of former Principles in gilt frames, the College began to feel less like a place of learning and more like a mechanism to romance the egos of those who’d just happened to have particular fortunes in life. Shortly afterwards we stood at a grand dinner-table with our heads bowed. The College Chaplain was reciting a lengthy prayer in Latin. We sat down to a three-course dinner with the rest of the new undergraduates, while butlers in white gloves drifted up and down the tables pouring wine. The student opposite me took the opportunity to enquire, over her lemon posset, whether or not Wales was a country? She had lived in neighbouring England her entire life and wasn’t sure.

I stayed at Oxford for nine days before I called my dad and told him I was leaving and not coming back. In that time, I witnessed enough to write a book about the cesspools of privilege that have been created in universities via the concept of prestige.

When I told a lecturer that I was transferring to Swansea University, they explained to me that it would be much harder for me to access funding grants as a postgraduate. I didn’t ask why because I didn’t need to. I knew that, in academic eyes, an Oxford graduate would always be perceived to be a more promising investment than a graduate from a non-Russell Group university. This lecturer in particular had gained a positive reputation by rallying against tuition fees, and told me with much passion about their belief that finances should never be a barrier to education. I didn’t have the energy to point out the irony in this acceptance of the prestigious/non-prestigious divide in financial grants.

The consequences of the idea that certain universities are more prestigious, or ‘better’, than others are two-fold. It damages students at said prestigious universities, but more importantly those who are not. We’ll examine the former group of students first.

Even in the short period of time in which I attended Oxford, I spoke to numerous third-years who were, simply, miserable. One told me that it was simply a matter of gritting one’s teeth until they could graduate. Another spoke of the ways in which the pressures he was under had led him to turn to alcohol abuse in order to cope. He told me about the ‘fifth-week blues’ – a phrase acknowledged across the university as referring to the fifth week into term when students tend to emotionally crash. Apparently it was common, and he had seen it among his friends, for students to develop mental health problems as a direct result of the pressurised atmosphere – ‘even ones who were fine before’. The issue was taboo, he said, and no one talked about it.

As I left with my bags in tow, a kindly staff member took my hand. ‘I’m so glad you’re leaving.’ Apparently third-year students on the cusp of graduation came to her each year in tears, regretting their decision to see it through. Many had wanted to transfer to a different university, she said, only to be forbidden from doing so by their parents.

But what are the impacts of a regime of academic prestige on the wider education system? It has forced a culture of quantification throughout higher education in the UK, with universities vying for the top place in ranking figures and statistics – at the cost of neglecting the actual, qualitative experience of their students. Of course, the National Student Survey is supposed to be a qualitative measure, but is framed around the notion of student as consumer, a competitive higher education market place and the fees regime, none of which are beneficial for students or the quality of their education. A higher education model structured around academic prestige has reinforced elitism, granting exclusive opportunities to those graduates who already possess the greatest social, economic, and political privileges. It encourages people to compare the A-Level results of poor Welsh pupils with those who have grown up in, say, Surrey. Perhaps more damaging than these realities, is the fact that this prestige places universities into a hierarchy in a way which damages the prospects and confidence of their students.

I mention confidence for a good reason. At Oxford, my discomfort was brushed aside as ‘imposter syndrome’. They assumed that I didn’t think I was smart enough to be there among them. But this wasn’t the case. In fact, I didn’t particularly think that those other English students were smarter than myself. But God, their confidence. Even when their ideas were unremarkable, the way in which they carried themselves, their extensive vocabularies, and their general sense of ease, would make them appear impressive to any outsider. One of the greatest qualities afforded by a private school on its pupils is not education, but confidence.

But where do Welsh students come into this? When I transferred to Swansea University, my new flatmates were confused by my choice. They asked me why I had not instead switched to a ‘better’ university, such as Exeter or Bristol. Student news site The Tab has maintained a long-standing joke that the Russell Group only let Cardiff University join their ranks as a cosmetic form of ‘Welsh representation’. Another article referred to Swansea students as ‘somehow even stupider’ than their counterparts in the capital. A friend suggested, eyebrows raised, that my choice of university represented ‘quite a step down’.

The snobbery produced by academic prestige tells Welsh students that their universities are an embarrassment, and that they must leave their home country in order to receive a respectable education. This also reinforces the English domination of UK power-structures: there is one Russell Group university in Northern Ireland, one in Wales, two in Scotland – and twenty in England. It is also no coincidence that those universities regularly ranked most highly in league tables are also those which perform at the worst levels of accessibility.

Every Prime Minister since 1955, except for three, has studied at Oxford University. The ‘Golden Triangle’ of Oxford, Cambridge and the elite London universities all illustrate a fact of British life: that power has been, and seemingly will be for many years to come, isolated to a small and extremely powerful socio-economic group. They are privately educated, white, confident, from London or the Home Counties, and are those most likely to take the most influential positions in our society: Members of Parliament, bankers, business leaders and owners. It is a world shut tightly closed to the Welsh, and the Scottish and Irish, too.

How do the Welsh gain access? The answer is that they shouldn’t seek to. Devolved higher education in Wales should present us with an opportunity to forgo the elitism and snobbery which hounds the intelligentsia of the British state, an opportunity to start afresh and construct our own measures of what constitutes a ‘great’ education. Our universities should be fully in a position to thrive on the basis of accessibility, garnering the experiences of black and minority ethnic students, poor students, disabled and queer students, in creating our own definition of prestige. However, it needs to be acknowledged that higher education is only partially devolved and Welsh-specific. The assessments of the quality of research, the UCAS application process and the National Student Survey all operate on a UK level. University league tables are compiled on a UK-wide basis too. How do we transform this situation? Firstly by pushing for greater devolution of higher education, but also, more profoundly, by challenging rather than pandering to traditional models of what excellence is, and refusing to compare Welsh intellectual life with the intelligentsia of England. This will require rigour and self-confidence, traits which have historically been monopolised by the privately educated.

But it is possible. If we stop glorifying the cult of the Russell Group and start questioning its whiteness, wealth, and unjust levels of social capital, we can put Welsh universities at the forefront of progressive education – and what could be ‘better’ than that?