Saturday, 14 June 2014

Making peace with Cambridge

I keep it quite quiet(ish), but I am a graduate of the University of Cambridge. I graduated with a first* in history from Robinson College exactly ten years ago today. I’m using this post to reflect on this. I was not happy at Cambridge; in fact I almost committed suicide. Like most Cambridge graduates I went back four years after I “matriculated” to get my free upgrade to an MA, a visit marked by, firstly how unbelievably shite our B&B was and secondly, by some very unpleasant emotional reactions, and spending twenty minutes sat in the sun on Jesus Green weeping.

The great span of a decade, and also my experience of different universities since, has allowed me to reflect on this. So, you’ll be pleased to note this won’t be a psychological moan (although there will be a bit of that) but a reflection on the inequalities in the UK’s education system that, I now realise, led me to be as unhappy as I was during my undergraduate degree.

A bit about my background first. I’m very middle class. I was brought up quite middle class, by a social worker and a teacher, in a reasonably well-to-do suburb of Bradford. I went to a state comprehensive that was very mixed, would probably now be referred to as “coasting” (failed the poor kids, didn’t stretch the clever rich kids) which usually got one or two pupils into Oxbridge from sixth form each year. I’d estimate about 20 per cent of my year went to university eventually; mainly the new universities and often those closest to Bradford.

My parents on the other hand were from very working class backgrounds, and in my mum’s case absolute poverty. They were products of the postwar expansion of education and the welfare state. I’m also openly gay, but only came out to my parents when I was 20. So that gives you a bit of an idea of the 19 year who toddled off to Cambridge back in 2001.

Cambridge is really weird

As presents heading off to Cambridge I was given a video of the classic TV series Porterhouse Blue by my mum and a bottle of Turning Leaf red wine by my mum’s friend whose daughter had gone to Oxford. The wine, it was explained, was to share at my first formal hall. At this I started to think Cambridge was a bit odd, but generally I was just scared and excited about going off to University.

As I didn’t have a video player at University I didn’t get to watch Porterhouse Blue until I came home after my first term for Christmas. If you’ve never seen it, I would recommend it. It stands with the opening chapter of Clive James’ May Week was in June as one of the greatest satires of Oxbridge establishment. It tells the parallel stories of a new master at Porterhouse College who wishes to reform it from its medieval ways and a young doctoral student plodding through his studies. It absolutely pillories the conservatism of Oxbridge, especially in terms of the ludicrous “traditions” – in the case of Porterhouse exemplified by a swan being served for dinner.

I laughed a lot watching it, and recognised a lot of what I’d already experienced in Cambridge in it. But I was defensive, and explained to my mum that Robinson wasn’t like that because it was the most modern college and was the only Oxbridge college founded as co-ed.** On reflection though, Robinson was modern in look, but was as conservative as the ancient colleges could be. We had formal hall twice a week, although attendance was optional, and in many regards the college had pretentions to be ancient. What I now recognise as the shame of the college management as to their listed building modernist building, also testifies to this. I’ll come back to pretentions later.

As I now understand, Cambridge is really weird in how it teaches. In organisational terms what would be programmes or degree courses at other universities was the “tripos”***; modules or courses were “papers”. I got my marks at the end of semester by going to see my Director of Study who would talk me through it (I can still recall passing one of my peers running, in tears, out of our DoS’s house at the end of first year). My final mark was posted on a sheet of A4, along with all the other students, on a board outside Senate House for all the world to see (Data Protection Act?).

In terms of teaching methods, in history you basically did an essay a week for eight weeks and submitted it for supervision with an academic and discussed it with them for an hour. The supervision/tutorial system is supposed to be what makes Oxbridge so good in terms of education. And in what other university would a student get eight hours of one-to-one tuition every term? I was lucky in that most of my supervisors were ok, although one did make me cry in a supervision. But as a timid comprehensive school lad, I can’t say the teaching method did much for me. Good feedback would have been sufficient.

Lectures were optional and as a result I only ever made it through all eight lectures of one lecture series. In the final lecture, me and two other students filled out the feedback sheets for the lecturer. He looked at them and commented that the same thing happened every year – he got glowing feedback, but only a handful of students stuck with him for the whole semester. Another lecturer essentially read out his textbook that had been published in 1983. It was out-of-date in about 1992. I did not stick around for all eight weeks of that one.

In one of my first lectures, Prof Blanning’s series on modern European history, he mentioned the setting up of the University of Berlin and its pioneering seminar method of teaching. He went on to mention, as an aside, that this was far superior to the supervision method. I experienced good seminars for two terms in my final year – in the special subject I had to do as a history student called Mid-Victorian culture wars. As someone who has experienced a range of higher education teaching techniques since, I now realise this was the only good teaching I ever got at Cambridge. It was student-led, with us all volunteering each week to do a report (I spent days pouring over the London Illustrated News on microfiche in the University library to produce a witty prĂ©cis of the Great Exhibition of 1851, including a good chunk on the inventor of the square wheel) with proper seminars where, as a group, we were treated as equals. The reading was predominantly original historical material which we then had to reflect on in the exam.

Apart from my dissertation, and a 2,500 word research report I had to produce in second year (which got a special mention for being particularly bad in the examiner’s report) all the assessment was exams. My final term at Cambridge was basically spent in libraries revising and writing mock exam papers. My hand was so crippled at the end of it I lost marks for my handwriting. I came out knowing remarkably little about the historical method; a remarkably specialised knowledge of mid-Victorian culture and eighteenth and early-nineteenth century history; and a lot of emotional baggage.

In terms of basic pedagogy, a learning outcome was never mentioned to me; as a learner I gained no transferable skills through my study (you had to get those through extracurricular activities); admittedly I was there 2001-4, but still only one lecturer used PowerPoint and a projector; I did not realise you could access journal articles online until halfway through my MSc degree at Heriot-Watt. My first experiences at other universities, Heriot-Watt and the University of Glasgow, was just how superior their teaching methods were; how much more challenging and rewarding it was; and how much more enjoyable it was. These are all lessons I’ve taken into my own teaching.

So, yes, Cambridge was, and I presume still is, weird. But what I’ve come to realise since, is Cambridge is weird because of social class.

Social class and Cambridge

I want to start this section with two stories of my time. In 1999 my school sent a group of us down to Cambridge to look around on an open day. Naively it just sent us off to Robinson, Queen’s, and in my own case Gonville and Cauis (pronounced “keys”) because the school had got students into them before. As part of the open day we were taken to the office of the Director of Studies for History at Cauis. We all sat around and he asked who we were and which school we were from. I was quite near the end. Every other prospective student went to a private school, some of which I had heard of. When everyone mention this the DoS replied with something along the lines of “oh good school. Do you know so-and-so, good chap”. The most awful one was the discussion with one about which position he played at Rugby as they’d been to the same school (which might have been Rugby). When it got to me I enthusiastically explained I went to “the Salt Grammar School, in Saltaire, the Victorian industrial model village built by Sir Titus Salt. You might have heard about it?”. He replied with “that’s nice” and went on to the person next to me. I felt literally winded and thought I’d ruined my chances of getting to Cambridge there and then.

Then on my first day we had our first ever formal hall. I didn’t take the bottle of Turning Leaf down as the college actually provided barely drinkable wine. As we awkwardly sat around I chatted to the guy next to me. It turned out he was an old Etonian. After the Latin grace, we sat down to eat and the guy asked me which set of cutlery he should use for the starter. Somewhat aghast I explained you worked from the outside in. I knew that because my grandmothers had been in service so laid the table like this for great families. As respectable working class and aspiring middle class, when we had a posh tea with that many courses (high days and holidays) that’s how the Sheffield silver plate cutlery was laid.

In my research now, I’m becoming increasingly knowledgeable about, and supportive of a Bourdieuan cultural understanding of class and for me these stories exemplify this. The latter story on the cultural capital of dining (although why Eton isn’t teaching this, God only knows. If I was a parent, I’d want my money back), the former story on the exclusionary nature of social and cultural capital as replicated in the UK’s schooling system as it is deployed in social settings.

I thought I fitted in at Cambridge, but in respect I did not because of this force of cultural and social capital. Yes I was very middle class and knew how to eat properly, but I hadn’t been to private school and did not know how to behave. What is more, as a timid young man, learning to live with his sexuality, it was never a skill I gained. I write this not long after the death of Richard Hoggart. In a wonderful tribute Lynsey Hanley explains the difficulties Hoggart, and herself, felt at university as “anxious and uprooted voices”. This very much resonates with my experience. I obviously cannot prove the counterfactual, but I think I would have been more comfortable at a redbrick university. As it was I was an “anxious and uprooted voice” because of social class at Cambridge. Yes, Cambridge has done a lot to widen access, but it cannot get away from the fact that a vastly greater proportion of it students went to private school then you will ever meet in everyday life. Those who went to state schools largely went to the best schools surrounded by similarly very middle class people. Much as I tried, I could not learn the comfort others had in social settings – the cultural capital – to feel like I fitted-in.

In retrospect, I found this article in the Telegraph, of all places, epitomises this. The bit that particularly resonates for me is the mention of the student who “prattled on about how you didn’t have to enjoy punting or drinking champagne to think about putting Cambridge on your UCAS form.” In my experience, you absolutely have to enjoy punting or drinking champagne (both of which I did) to fit in at Cambridge. I remember the summer I left there was a documentary on BBC2 about the experience of ethnic minority students at Oxbridge and it included some footage of people queuing to get into Trinity college ball - £150 a, very exclusive, ticket with all the champagne and oysters you could consume if you made it to the other side. Sat watching this footage of very wealthy young people in ball gowns and dinner suits from the sofa in my mum’s three-bed semi in Bradford, I realised how different Oxbridge was from the rest of the UK.

A further dimension of how social class expressed itself particularly as an exclusionary force is exemplified by the infamous Bullingdon Club photo of David Cameron and his cronies. When people raise charges of elitism in reference to this photo, it is, all too easily, dismissed by them as the language of envy and class war. But drinking societies in Oxbridge matter. My college had one ironically called “The Robinson Rentals” referring back to the humble beginnings of David Robinson who made his first millions renting out TVs in the east of England. Being a member of a drinking society essentially meant you were in the in-crowd and had friends and connections for life. Even if you were not invited to join, if you were on the periphery it helped you get on socially. If you were excluded then you were one of the bullied geeks around the place.

Although they were both less exclusive, it is fair to say that the Cambridge Union Society and the Cambridge University Conservative Association (the two organisations were indistinguishable when I was a student), played a similar role in social networks and social exclusion within Cambridge.

The dominance of the drinking societies meant that a certain form of classed behaviour predominated in social circles – a behaviour of low-level bullying and drinking that came straight out of boarding schools. In my second year I was the LGBT rep on our college Students’ Association. One Saturday morning I awoke to a bed sheet that had been tied to the balcony walkway outside my window, on which someone had scrawled “this college is gay”. This was the most direct homophobic attack on me as a person I had experienced since I had left school. Everyone knew it was the Rentals that had done after they’d got pissed on Friday night. But among the students it was dismissed as “a laddish prank”. It took the enlightened intervention of the Senior Tutor to email all students and express how appalling the incident was.

This is the behaviour you see Cameron doing in his “flashman” moments. The fact that the press so blithely accept the “it’s class envy” argument when things like the Bullingdon Club are mentioned, for me, demonstrates the hegemonic dominance of such people and such ways of behaving in British society. The dominance of private schooling and Oxbridge in the elite of the UK ensures class inequalities are perpetuated. If you can’t access these things by birth, then you seek to imitate them through getting your kids into the best school, and the pretensions of non-Oxbridge universities, and their students, to be like Oxbridge.

I know a lot of comprehensive school kids from similar backgrounds will read this and go “this is rubbish. It wasn’t like this at all. This is all about you”. That is a fair argument. Of the non-private school students who get to Cambridge, I’m sure many do very well. I’m sure my story will resonate with others, however. And while I was not in a happy place as an undergraduate generally, I am now very much aware of the role social class had in this, and that cannot be denied. Similarly, I’m sure people will point to the laddish behaviour of students at other universities – the University I’ll soon be moving to is a case in point – as to why that behavioural aspect of my experience at Oxbridge is nonsense, it exists at all universities. But the unique thing for me, is the sheer dominance of people educated at Oxbridge in the elite of our nation means this matters a lot more than Stirling’s hockey club.

As an undergraduate in my first two years I took part in Cambridge’s access work, going to my local FE college in Bradford to eulogise to them about applying there. I remember talking about how happy I was and how it wasn’t all posh, and then going on to say how much I enjoyed punting and the May balls. I know for a fact I managed to put one student off applying. I couldn’t do this now. If I was to do it I would be forced to admit punting was an activity started by Edwardian toffs with little else to do and was actually quite pricey; the price of a May Ball ticket was probably much more than someone from the majority of the households in the UK could afford to pay once they’d forked out for their tuition fees; I’d have to tell them that whenever they mentioned which FE college they had attended they would be ridiculed; I would have to tell them that the people they meant who sneered at them for their background, who described their college as “looking like a prison” out of sheer snobbishness, would then be in power over them, setting the agenda for debate at a national level in the UK. I would tell the students to go to any other university in the UK because the teaching will be better, the mix of students more inclusive and interesting, and the opportunities to be yourself far wider.

* my first is why I am a very understanding member of exam boards as an academic now. At Cambridge your final degree classification is decided on the results of your second “tripos” which in History is your final year. It consisted of four papers and a dissertation, and since everything was double-marked, 10 marks. On my dissertation and two other papers I had very divergent marks. Off the top of my head, my marks were something like 51, 53, 68, 68, 68, 70, 70, 73, 75 and 80. I can’t remember for sure, but basically, with my mean mark I’d barely scraped a 2ii, however I was told by my Director of Studies that the exam board debated me for a long time, and agreed to give me my median mark of a First.

** although, there was a myth that the wonderful building designed by the partnership of Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan at Gillespie, Kidd & Coia was not originally fitted with showers in the bathrooms because one of the women on the panel who supervised the design was of the view that “ladies do not shower, they bathe”.

*** Latin for a three-legged stool. Need I say more?


  1. Having had some very similar experiences (and an analogous trajectory) I can corroborate a good deal of this rather excellent post

  2. Thanks for writing this. I also went to Cambridge though earlier, from 1988-1991, and to a different college, King's, which took 70% state schools so many of the people I met had backgrounds that were more similar to mine (middle class and educated at a London comprehensive). But overall, your experiences resonate with mine. Cambridge is profoundly weird; the lecturing is (mostly) poor and the supervision system is inconsistent and would be better replaced by tutorials. The class of my degree was decided through 12 hours of examination held over just two days and the results were then read out in public (a perverse ritual that I did not attend) before being pinned up to the front of Senate House. I think social class is really important to understanding how people feel at Cambridge. For me, gender was really important too. I was studying mathematics and men massively outnumbered women with most of the women I saw in lectures coming from the two all female colleges. I was the only woman in my year doing maths at my mixed college and experienced sexism from both tutors and other students. About a decade after I graduated, I was lucky enough to read a brilliant report on gender issues in Cambridge maths that documented the misogynistic culture. The report was based on research commissioned by Cambridge but, to my knowledge, was never published.

  3. Thank you both for your comments. It's oddly reassuring to have received these and the many positive comments from people who shared similar experiences on Twitter.

    This post auto-posted on 14th June but I was literally scared to publicise it on Twitter in case I got the class hegemonic response of "this is rubbish, it's all about you and Oxbridge is doing x on access" or "don't be stupid, it's not about class as I went to a comp". That people shared my experience I find upsetting but reassuring. Maybe we all need to talk about this more and create change?

    On misogyny, I can only agree - I now understand the horrible number of women with eating disorders I knew as one of the insidious ways this manifested itself.

  4. Sounds spot on to me. Good read to boot.

    Oxbridge is/are not university/ies of learning knowledge, but learning social position and gaining social/cultural capital.

    I had the 'luck' to do my PhD at Oxford Brookes (with the latter pronounced in a low mutter) and was therefore both outside Oxford (as an organization) and somewhat inside (as an institution that dominates the city). I did an undergrad & Masters at Edinburgh so got a similar experience of yah culture, although not as oppressive as Oxbridge I imagine.

    One story from my Oxford (Brookes) days kind of tells the whole story of the place. I wanted to buy a bike and the best place to do it was second hand from a guy who set up stall every Weds (or whatever day) in the Oxford Union quad from 7am. You had to get there early or you'd miss out on all the best bikes. I got there about 7,30am, found a bike and held on to it waiting with everyone else in a queue. Then about 1-2 hours later a female toff student came along with her mum, talked loudly (the way they do without realizing it) about the bike she wanted, then they simply walked to the head of the queue with no awareness of it actually existing and basically got the bike seller to serve them before everyone else who'd been waiting since 7am. The point of the story is that no-one else in the queue (incl. myself - although I was watching with more humour than annoyance at this point) let out a peep of protest. Basically, it's a great example of how people brought up in Britain are trained (and I mean that deliberately) to find and fit their class position like a nice, velvet glove (inside a massive, stinking fist). It's disgusting, but (and this is the kicker) we let them get away with it and perpetuate it in turn.

    In follow-up, what I started to hate about England (and Britain more generally) is this class training and my own behaviour when I'm in it. I become a snob myself (I know my exact class position), looking down on others I've been trained to denigrate (I know who they are from their dress, behaviour, accent, even before I hear what they do as a job). Whenever I come back to the UK now I find myself doing it as soon as I step off the plane and I disgust myself immediately. I think it's one of the reasons I loved living in Scotland because I could put it aside as I was an outsider of sorts (being English) and could ignore the class training I had received.