The first time I set eyes on Oxford

Philip Pullman

The first time I set eyes on Oxford was on a day in December 1964, when I came up for interview. It was one of those bright clear days we sometimes get in winter, and it drew the honey colour out of the stone buildings and set it against a brilliant blue sky, and I fell in love with the place. What had made me think I could come here? I was the first member of my family to go to university; I was the first pupil from my school, a local comprehensive in north Wales, to go to Oxford. Simple: I thought I could come because tuition was free, and because Merionethshire County Council gave me a grant for my living expenses.

The extraordinary benevolence of those facts now looks like something from a golden age. I am absolutely certain that if things were then as they are now, I would never have done more than dream about coming to Oxford, and the course of my life would have been utterly different. How many of those girls, I wonder, who listened to Michelle Obama in Christ Church during the presidential state visit, how many of them will still feel that Oxford is a place where they belong when they contemplate the amount it will cost them and the burden they will carry as a result?


  • 6 June 2011 at 7:10pm
    danield says:
    Surprisingly, there are other universities aside from Oxford and Cambridge.

  • 6 June 2011 at 8:17pm
    louBurnard says:
    As danield implies, the truly disgusting nature of the situation that confronts us is not that an entire generation of the not-particularly-well-off are going to be denied the dubious pleasures of Oxford's honey coloured stones, but that they are going to be equally denied the possibility of going to Bristol, Nottingham, London, Exeter, Birmingham, etc etc.

  • 6 June 2011 at 10:14pm
    alex says:
    I'd like to third the comments made by danield and louBurnard. Pullman is entitled to like Oxbridge, and there are some good tutors there, but it's characteristic that he writes about its looks and not its intellectual merits. I have been taught both in a one-to-one tutoring system, and in a small-to-medium group system, and truly believe the latter is better. Good northerners' memoirs on Oxbridge include those of AJP Taylor (Manchester) and of course the LRB's own Frank Kermode (Liverpool), neither reckoned Oxbridge cutting edge. Most people who sound off on the topic haven't got the comparative experience to talk about it properly, so if you don't want to take my word for it, read these two...
    People who didn't go there: Lorna Sage, John Sutherland, Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge (& Roland Barthes, Johan Huizinga, Juergen Habermas, Mikhail Bakhtin, most other people...). I know Pullman's heart is in the right place; but the rights that we should be fighting for are not those of dreaming (a)spires but of thinking fullstop.

  • 7 June 2011 at 4:06am
    philip proust says:
    I think the three previous commentators are a little harsh on Philip Pullman and overlook the very obvious points he is making.

    The extraordinary thing about his attendance at Oxford was its previous status as an exclusive nursery for the ruling class. Attending Cambridge or Oxford imparted a kind of power to the graduate that was simply not available at other institutions. It was a sure sign of the democratisation of the 1960s that members of the subordinate classes could at last gain entry, thereby diluting one of the entitlements of the elite. That England under neo-liberal policies is regressing to its pre-War class configuration is a phenomenon worth noting and bemoaning.

    The question of whether Oxford is superior to other universities is also missing the point. By all indicators its academic reputation remains justified, but the issue that Philip Pullman alludes to is the nature of the Oxford experience. I have only visited as a tourist, but even a day of informed wandering is a reminder of what one might have lost by attending elsewhere. The privileges of the upper classes are not in this instance a chimera, or mere snobbery. Being a student at Oxford - or Cambridge - offers a fundamentally different life-episode than that provided by the 'new' universities; one which cannot be entirely reduced to the quality of the teaching. Though not to everyone's taste, apparently, we could at least agree that attendance should not be a question of the wealth or otherwise of one's parents.

    • 7 June 2011 at 6:20am
      alex says: @ philip proust
      Philip, I agree with some of what you're saying: certainly the last sentence. But the bigger picture is that what is at risk is not just access to Oxbridge for ordinary people but access to all kinds of higher education institutions.
      I agree Oxford has a fine research reputation, although my redbrick humanities department (which I'm leaving for a job abroad) has a higher research rating in its field than Oxford. Oxbridge students go further, because they are more ambitious, accustomed to success. Not because they are better taught. In Taylor's words, redbricks taught people to be professional, while Oxbridge taught them to be successful. Kermode made the point that the Cambridge intake was always top-drawer (such was their reputation) so success of their graduates can't always be attributed to the tutorial system. I note you've only been for a day, but that's what it's like.
      Again, I stress that this shouldn't detract from the important and moving aspects of Pullman's appeal.

    • 7 June 2011 at 11:05am
      James Alexander says: @ philip proust
      Not all that central to the discussion, even a tad pedantic, but it wasn't really or very much at all "a sure sign of the democratisation of the 1960s that members of the subordinate classes could at last gain entry". It was a slow first-half twentieth century development, then the 1944 Act. From that all Grammar School entrants had to pass the eleven-plus, so the Grammar Schools were populated much more numerously by, drank more copiously from, the pool of ability contained within the subordinate classes. By the early 1950s their A-streams/sixth forms were reflecting that, and pressing on the (increasing) public grants (County Scholarship) and Universities. At Oxbridge, they pressed on Oxbridge's own Open competitive scholarships.

      That was my own story - Ex-Council house, 11+ in 46, Grammar A-stream, Cambridge place publicly financed 1953, National Service, 2:1 in 58. There were quite a few of us to be found in every College from then on. Occasional loud asides about put ignorance of cutlery management from the nastier Public School set, but the respect for ability from many others of the them, and most of the Dons, made up for it. We were anyway unphased, because we were young, confident, full of ourselves, and we thought we were the future. Well, that was then, and we were, if only up to a point, Lord Coper.

      My point in contributing here and now is only to put in a historian's sigh and protest about the ever-recurring and hydra-headed myth that everything good, (sex, youth, rebellion, social democratic progress) was unknown before 1963. 1963 was short skirts.

      On the central discussion here, I cold contribute my own feeling about wanting Cambridge when I was 1218, but that needs another post - it was very like Pullman's, totally seduced. Maybe we were less knowing then. It was a few years before I turned more objectively critical about the whole thing.

    • 7 June 2011 at 5:59pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ James Alexander
      A friend told me that, when he was asked why he wanted to read English at Jesus College, he said that he liked the sound of reading books for three years in nice surroundings. They let him in, so presumably that wasn't the most impressive thing he said at his interview. (I didn't have an interview at all, either because my entrance exam was *really* impressive or by accident - probably the latter.)

      He went on to be an accountant, I went on to be a computer programmer - and, many years later, a lecturer in criminology - so maybe three years reading books in nice surroundings was all it was: a brief detour from the normal life-course for our class. But they were very nice surroundings (and very good books), and it's surely better that they be available to anyone who can make use of them (or, at least, rationed on something other than class and wealth). And we did make use of them - we weren't just there to receive knowledge and demonstrate that we'd absorbed it, and we did contribute to the academic conversation in a small way (for if you talk long to undergraduates, undergraduates will also talk to you).

      The point about the restriction of access to *all* higher education is well made, and the Oxbridge approach certainly isn't self-evidently superior in all areas or for all students. But it is an extraordinary and highly memorable experience for many people who go through it - and its accessibility has been transformed for the better in living memory, and now looks like being transformed right back again. I think Pullman's brief comment can be endorsed on its merits without complaining about all the things it doesn't say.

    • 7 June 2011 at 6:50pm
      alex says: @ Phil Edwards
      Phil - your last sentence, like Philip's, is impossible to disagree with, and I appreciated your account. But it IS important to stress the plight of other universities too, where people have no less memorable experiences. Their provision is likely to be eroded more. If said provision were valued by students and employers as being on a par with Oxbridge - and there's no reason why it shouldn't be, as they often have top-class research ratings and oolithic limestone is not an essential adjunct to an induction into the mysteries of the world's knowledge - it could change this country as much as anything. I already said I didn't want to detract from Pullman's overall point, and maybe this is the wrong post under which to be having this discussion, but figured you deserved an answer.

    • 8 June 2011 at 9:57am
      alex says: @ Phil Edwards
      The title of this article (although, as the first commenter points out, not the content) points to exactly the issue I was raising:
      Another article shows how A.C.Quisling's New College for the Humanities is devoid of content not because it's commercial, but because what people want to buy is a sub-Oxbridge insulation from education which is actually extremely good, but doesn't have social cachet in this country:
      I'd like to see an article by the current Poet Laureate entitled 'The first time I set eyes on Liverpool'.

    • 8 June 2011 at 7:18pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ alex
      Not to detract from your achievement, but I can't believe nobody's come up with "A.C. Quisling" before now. I might start calling him Vidkun (as and when the opportunity arises to call him anything).

      I work at a post-92, so the fact that the de-funding of higher education is going to have implications outside Oxbridge hadn't escaped me! My own institution is one of the few which have chosen to edge lower than the full £9,000 - about £500 lower in our case. It may turn out to be a canny move, sending a fairly meaningless signal of affordability without also signalling 'cheapness' or betraying vulnerability. (Even £6,000 a year isn't 'cheap', and the universities are all vulnerable - but never mind the realities, feel the semiotics.) On the other hand, paying the same fee whether you go to Oxford or Oxford Brookes clearly wasn't how the government thought it would work out, and it's going to be very difficult to finance; something is going to give, and it may well be us.

      So higher education is in for some dark times, and Oxbridge isn't going to suffer anywhere near as much as the institutions without the global names and the loaded alumni/ae. But that's separate from the point about access, which is simply that for me & Philip Pullman higher education - even at Oxford or Cambridge - was not something that you had to buy. The Browne reforms and the universities' (entirely predictable) response to them have turned that situation on its head - henceforth higher education will be cripplingly expensive, even if it's not at Oxford or Cambridge.

    • 12 June 2011 at 1:27pm
      pinhut says: @ Phil Edwards
      "But it is an extraordinary and highly memorable experience for many people who go through it "

      We who didn't attend Oxbridge know this full well, because its graduates can never ever shut up talking about the fact they studied there.

  • 8 June 2011 at 9:44am
    ejh says:
    Personally, I hated the place, and if I had my time again I would choose somewhere else to go. But I went there from a comprehensive, on a full grant, and when I came out owed less than five hundred quid. I am damned if I see why people like me should have to go elsewhere, or else find tends of thousands of pounds that they do not have and cannot afford to owe, because of a government led by precisely the sort of people who made Oxford so miserable.

  • 11 June 2011 at 1:30am
    Denis Sullivan says:
    My experience was similar to Pullman's although I failed the 11+ in 1945 but was streamed into the top flight when my De La Salle school became a Grammar School and my Scholarship level certificates led to Cambridge in 1953 handsomely paid for by the State. The individual tuition was unenlightening but exposure to the lecture and social smorgasbord and the University Library led to feelings of privilege and classlessness which have abided ever since.

    • 12 June 2011 at 1:29pm
      pinhut says: @ Denis Sullivan
      "led to feelings of privilege and classlessness which have abided ever since."

      A strange combination. What would that entail, practically?

    • 17 June 2011 at 3:58pm
      mhj says: @ pinhut
      The privilege lies in having encountered other minds, in person or in books, in a world where class distinctions, though they existed, did not matter, to wit, a classless world. The key to that privilege is being adopted into what you would not be elsewhere. A primary school library contains more of it than a selective birthday party at the same age would.

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