How true are our stereotypes about Oxbridge graduates?

How true are our stereotypes about Oxbridge graduates?
Not very diverse. Source: Reuters/Dylan Martinez.

Last week, student accommodation provider Liberty Living presented the findings of a study that aimed to find out the “questions, worries, and preconceptions” of university students.

They appear to be mighty curious about Cambridge and Oxford students.

Liberty had used auto-complete data from UberSuggest, a keyword search tool, to search for keyword ideas based on queries that began with “Why is [City name] University” and left the rest blank.

What then happens is that UberSuggest uses Google search data to fill in the blank space based on users’ previous searches.

The result? A mix of the bizarre, strange and downright awkward. Examples: “Why do I fancy my lecturer?”, “Is university like ‘Fresh Meat’?”, “Why does my lecturer stare at me?”

But that’s not it. Liberty’s research also found a focus on stereotypes about Oxford and Cambridge students, many of which goes along the lines of “arrogant snobs”.

“The queries showed that there’s plenty of negative as well as positive stereotypes concerning the two universities,” Joanna Threlfall, a Liberty spokesperson said.

These are some of the Autocompletes found:

  • Are Oxbridge graduates arrogant?
  • Are Oxford students snobby?
  • Are Oxford and Cambridge students stuck up?

Threlfall says this could be down to Oxbridge’s status as two of the world’s most famous universities.

It could also have been due to class as Threfall reckons some of the clichés come from an assumption that the two universities favour the middle or upper classes, which is not too far off from data, however.

In 2004/5, only 12.3 percent of entrants to Oxford are from poor socio-economic backgrounds. A decade later, the figure has fallen to 10 percent of entrants – Cambridge has similar figures, data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) last year found.

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron is from Oxford, while his deputy then, Nick Clegg, graduated from Cambridge. Source: Office of Nick Clegg

This perhaps explains why popular culture also regularly depicts Oxbridge as elite institutions where posh kids from private schools go to, wear chinos and study in a castle before one day, becoming David Cameron. There’s a lot of Harry Potter-like gowns involved as well.

And news about a student burning a £20 note in front of a homeless person isn’t helping dispel the stereotypes either. Though, the student did say sorry about it after getting huge flak and is attending “awareness classes, relating to both alcohol and social inclusion”, according to the BBC.

But how true are these stereotypes anyway?

To demystify these stereotypes surrounding the attendees of those ivory towers, we spoke to a couple of former Oxford University students to find out whether those cliches and assumptions ring true or not.

“Most Oxford students are not arrogant snobs,” says Yu Ren Chung, a Master of Public Policy (MPP) graduate from the Blavatnik School of Government.

Yu had the same stereotype before he became a student there. Though he later found out that “the vast majority” of students he met there did not meet the stereotypes, he was quick to point out that his personal experience may not be “entirely representative” as he mostly interacted with postgraduates and the people in his course was particularly diverse.

Yu (kneeling far right) and his classmates. Source: Yu Ren Chung.

To Jane Smith (not her real name), an English Literature graduate, the stereotype about Oxford students as “posh snobs” is misplaced. Most would even be surprised by how “egalitarian” it is, Smith said.

“At Oxford a lot of people can com up with a chip on their shoulder expecting it to be full of posh snobs, but it really isn’t. Of course Oxford gets its fair share of them, but other universities (like St Andrews, Bristol, Durham) are far snootier.The entry criterion for Oxford really is intelligence, and that is all – it’s about how clever you are, not how posh you are”

But some colleges can be haughtier than others, Smith warned. It depends on the particular colleges’ acceptance rates for applicants from state schools – These colleges are the one in control over who gets to enter, not its faculty of undergraduates, same goes for Cambridge.

Christ Church, for example, “is fed by Eton”, a private school with annual fees of £37,602 and count both Prince William and Prince Harry as former pupils.

Whereas St Hugh’s “is a lot less traditional”, newer and have more entrants coming from state schools, according to Smith. She could be on to something as her observations match government data.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published last year found Christ Church College as one of the top five worst offenders in terms of accepting students from the state sector, together with three other Oxford Colleges: Trinity, St Peter’s and University College. Cambridge’s Robinson College rounded up the top five.

They happen to be among the richest colleges in Oxford too, which brings one to ask whether it’s money behind the snootiness?

Yes or no, Yu says, the perception that Oxbridge students are “arrogant snobs” is there and it’s doing more harm than good.

“These stereotypes are harmful if they discourage prospective students from applying or if the reality creates an inconducive environment for some students. Students and alumni should do our best to ensure the university is inclusive, institutionally as well as through our personal behaviours,” Yu, who is now an Advocacy Manager at Malaysia’s Women’s Aid Organisation said.

“Going to Oxford doesn’t mean you are the most awesome person in the world – we’re all where we are as a result of luck, privilege, and preference”.

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