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  1. Long reads
12 July 2007

How big money seduces Oxford’s brains

Champagne parties? £800 a week for a summer job? These are the kind of lures the banks are throwing

By Matthew Holehouse

“Why on earth would you want to go into banking?” I asked my college friend at his end-of-term house party. “You hate finance and you want to work in the theatre.”

The answer was, of course, the money. The splurging City bonuses – with directors awarding each other up to £6m a year and twenty- somethings on bonuses 15 times their core pay, running out of luxury goods on which to spend their thousands.

Last year, Peter Hain called for a redistribution of the City’s “grotesque” £8.8bn employee giveaway, and the willingness of this government to curb these monster pay-cheques will for many be the measure of the Brown administration.

But most remarkable is how such excess has trickled down the banking food chain. Roths- child, Barclays Capital and Morgan Stanley pay their undergraduate summer interns around £850 a week. At Goldman Sachs, where secretary Joyti De-Laurey stole £4m from her boss before he noticed, it’s up to £1,200. In exchange for working 6am-to-midnight shifts, six days a week, many banks will throw in dinner, relocation expenses and shopping trips to Paris. “I can pay off my entire student debt in a summer and be guaranteed £350,000 within three years,” said my friend. “How can you turn that down?”

The competition is fierce. From a pool of more than 10,000 applicants, each of the major banks takes around 200 interns a year. Of those, a quarter will be from Oxford. Academic abilities aside, the Oxford culture of working before breakfast or late into the night is a major draw.

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And so the City is certainly willing to part with some of its loose change to win us over. Most university sports teams and larger college boat clubs are sponsored for between £5,000 to £15,000 in exchange for branded clothing, flyers at drinks events and partner versus student fixtures. Lehman Brothers back the Varsity rugby match for around £8,000.

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Among the flyers from Ucas last summer, inviting me to take out bank accounts and student travel cards, was an invitation to join a UBS bursary scheme. In exchange for a five-figure package over three years and a mentoring scheme, I would sign up to a summer internship – fully paid, of course. Deutsche Bank runs a similar programme at £3,000 a year.

It was certainly tempting, but with no real interest in banking, I didn’t want to start deciding on a career having only just left school. The 5,000-word application essay wasn’t particularly appealing, either.

The Oxford Union is also cashing in: it charges £5,000 for firms to sponsor debates featuring politicians and media commentators. Barclays Capital funds film nights, holding a short recruitment lecture before an exclusive first screening. “Everyone talks through that bit,” says one student. “But they’re obviously keen to get our attention.”

The central theme of these subsidised events is, inevitably in a student town, alcoholic. Oxford University Investment and Finance Society (OUIFS) hosts lavish free parties and dinners on the back of sponsorship from Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Barclays Capital and Credit Suisse, each rated as gold, silver and bronze according to their contribution.

Last term, OUIFS held a Dom Pérignon party at a posh cocktail bar. The tab came to £4,000. “It makes sense,” says one society member. “That comes to about £30 a head. These companies expect to spend at least £5,000 for every student they recruit, so this is really pennies.” It was followed by a garden party-cum-networking event in Merton College’s grounds, billed as Pimms, champagne, strawberries, canapés and summer jazz. “Admission, free. Dress, business casual.”

The Union got a similar sum from RAB Capital for its annual Blenheim Palace ball. Winetastings and big dinners are common and one bank gives a bottle of champagne to every student who asks a question at its drinks presentations. It’s not just highbrow events, either: it is rumoured that one college has this year secured £8,000 from a European bank for its freshers’ week, which, if tradition is anything to go by, is four days of home-made vodka cocktails and fancy-dress discos. “They basically want to get you pissed and chat you up,” says one student. “It makes going out in second year pretty cheap.”

However, the saturation of Oxford University with loose corporate change means employers are rethinking their strategy. “Banks really aren’t as willing to put up ‘cash for lash’ as they once were,” says Ben Tansey, a banking intern and a former president of OUIFS. “They’re all Oxbridge graduates who’ve played the game themselves and they know that if their name goes on 500 ball tickets, very few students will really pay attention.”

Mengyi He, a second-year economics and management student, works as a campus ambassador for Deutsche Bank. In between internships she files “marketing reports”, advising her prospective employers on which student societies are most professionally run and will get them closest to students. Access among arts students who like to think themselves above “corporate whoredom” is especially prized.

“Banks are being much more original and innovative now,” she says. “Citigroup runs a Dragon’s Den scheme, where students have to make a pitch for funds. They’re very receptive if it’s done professionally and can promise to reach a lot of people. One society made £15k in a term from having a very slick presentation – but most students just aren’t able to pitch at the level they expect.”

And that is all fine, you might think. Stop complaining and down that complimentary Dom Pérignon, comrade: if the banks want to spend thousands on PR for every graduate secured and if these kids want to work 110-hour weeks and risk baldness at 23 for stupendous pay-cheques, so be it. There is a huge rush to be had in gambling with other people’s money.

But when the lure of Canary Wharf pulls in students who arrived at college determined to be doctors, playwrights, human rights lawyers, it’s a bit depressing. A friend studying Chinese has given up on ambitions for the Foreign Office in favour of the City.

“It’s the only chance you get to earn seriously huge money,” she says. “It’s far easier to get into than other professions, such as politics or journalism, and once you’re in you’re pretty much guaranteed retirement at 45.”

And my would-be thespian friend? He decided Rothschild wasn’t for him. “I realised I’d lose my social life, which is one price I don’t want to pay. I’ll just be poor instead.”