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26 April 2022

NS archive: A poor student looks at Oxford

6 January 1934: The worst feature of the poor student's life in the Dreaming Spires is that while he has no money he is continually in the company of those who do.

By John Brown

When John Brown, the author of this 1934 article, arrived at Oxford University aged 24 his first impressions “were of a general lack of discipline and a general plenitude of money”. While the world of work stifles opportunities for leadership and initiative, the very set-up of Oxford encourages individualism. “This explains the superb self-confidence that is the Oxford man’s special characteristic,” Brown wrote. How might a poor student fit into such an environment? Brown found the university “unreal” at first; the “intellectualisation of all life” was “depressing”. Less well-off students off couldn’t afford to join the Union, or the numerous member-only societies. They were unlikely to become popular, since “in Oxford popularity is usually a synonym for hospitality”, and entertaining costs money. Worst of all was the inability to buy academic books. While this system stayed in place, Brown understood that Oxford’s dominance in the international arena would not change. Yet he felt something in the air: some students were “dreaming of building a new and better world”, he observed.

I came to Oxford at 24 years of age with experience as a journalist, a salesman, a bricklayer’s labourer, a sailor, and a political organiser. This is in startling contrast to the record of the average undergraduate, but it is analogous to the records of most workers who filter through to Oxford from the industrial field. My first impressions were of a general lack of discipline and a general plenitude of money. After the rigid discipline and military organisation of industry, Oxford seemed revolutionary. And so it is.

In economic life the individual is crushed. His capacity for leadership and his initiative are stifled. But Oxford develops these qualities and encourages individualism. The tutorial system, the abjectness of Oxford tradesmen, the “scout” system, the organisation of the Union Society, and the plethora of clubs, each with its own officials – these are only a few examples. This is the explanation of why young Oxford graduates can go to the ends of the earth and administer thousands of natives in areas sometimes greater than Britain. This explains the superb self-confidence that is the Oxford man’s special characteristic. (I admit there are exceptions. There must be, with 4,000 students.) The difference between Oxford and, to a lesser degree, Cambridge, and the rest of the country, including the provincial universities, is that Oxford men are trained for leadership and other men are trained to be good technicians and camp followers. This explains the amazing record of success of Oxford men through the centuries, and so long as the present system continues I do not anticipate any change.

As for the wealth of undergraduates, this is very obvious. When I speak of wealth, I mean, of course, comparative wealth, as I recognise that £3,000 per annum allowances are almost unknown nowadays, and £500 per annum is looked on as sufficient. But to take my own case – I was allowed £25 last year by the organisation providing my scholarship, which was all I had in the world to pay for laundry, clothes, repairs, club subscriptions, maintenance during vacations (half the year), postages, travelling expenses, and the hundred other necessities which must be found.

I succeeded in surviving without tremendous difficulties, as I was lucky enough to obtain work during the vacations. But what of other poor students? A very small percentage obtain work, but most of them are compelled to live on their friends and relatives until term opens.

Along with all other worker-students, I found the atmosphere unreal at first. The cynicism, the absence of belief in anything, the intellectualisation of life – all seemed very depressing. But underneath this surface I found that Oxford was in many ways pulsating with life and that the cynicism covered brave and energetic spirits striving for certainty.

In former years the poor student had a perpetually arriviste air about him, but today it is impossible to distinguish in the High between men from Balliol and workers who have struggled to the university from loom and lathe.

What are the principal handicaps of the poor student? Well, he frequently cannot afford to join the Union, which means that he misses the chance of obtaining the best debating training in the whole world. He is debarred from achieving popularity on a big scale, because in Oxford popularity is usually a synonym for hospitality, and he cannot afford to entertain. Nor is it possible to be always jovial and full of a light and airy wit, and to plan audacious and exhilarating rags when one is wondering whether credit can be obtained from cobblers. Most poor students have a fear of being patronised, and some of my friends have refused invitations to dinners on such grounds. Lack of money prevents them from enjoying the privileges of membership of the more exclusive clubs.

The worst feature of the poor student’s life in Oxford, however, is that while he has no money he is continually in the company of people who have. This usually creates a psychology of inferiority which, subtle and not admitted, is poisonous in its effects. Most poor students in Oxford react to their position in one of the two following ways. They cut themselves completely adrift from university social life, and frequently from the sports activities also, and concentrate on their studies; or they become camp followers of the university, aping the speech and mannerisms that have made Oxford at once the envy and the laughing stock of the world.

I dislike both types, but I have more respect for the first; unfortunately, however, this type not infrequently manifests itself in pipe-smoking, humourless individuals, who talk like the characters in the advertisements of a well-known tobacco, and for whom I invariably conceive an unreasonable loathing at first sight.

Another bad effect that Oxford has on worker-students is that the temporary intoxication produced by being elected an honorary member of the middle class has resulted in many Oxford men of the types I have described drifting into safe routine work which has the effect of killing all mental life.

Sartorially, also, the poor student is overshadowed, and while in appearance he may be indistinguishable from most men with ten times his income, he can never hope to experiment or innovate in the realm of fashion. This is, however, not nearly so severe a penalty as the inability to purchase necessary but expensive books.

It is in the political field that the poor student comes into his own. University politicians are striving to understand working-class problems, and are eager for first-hand information. Much of the political activity in Oxford is due to the depression which has impinged to a large measure upon that certainty of future security of income which the Oxford graduate looked upon as his prerogative in former years. Yet there is a lack of sturdiness and determination to grapple with the practical issues of life.

I feel myself here in the midst of a world of talkers, gathered together for a little while inside these friendly walls to discuss world problems, but only to discuss them.

Yet one thing is certain, and that is that Oxford is losing its traditional introspection and is developing a new sense of values. It may still be full of dreamers, both rich and poor, but at least some of them are dreaming of building a new and better world and will be prepared to struggle for it when the moment comes.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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