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Port and plotting – does anyone outside the BBC really care?

On Thursday night, the media’s seemingly never ending obsession with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge delved new depths. The programme in question was BBC2’s ‘Wonderland: Young, Bright and on the Right’.

Young Tories have, perhaps deservedly, never met the best press reception – see Harry Enfield’s ToryBoy or its real life incarnation in a young William Hague’s speech to the 1977 Conservative Party conference – but this show’s anthropological study of the young right’s high fliers tells us very little.

“You can’t make a political career at nineteen, but you can certainly break it,” claimed endearingly awkward second year law student at Cambridge, Chris Monk, perhaps advice he and his fellow subject of study, Joe Cooke, will one day wish they had taken. Years of reality television have show us how easily and quickly anyone can now make a fool of themselves, but here it seems as if the programmers have deliberately set up its subjects.

The documentary maker Alisa Pomeroy initially started out making a film about student politics more generally, talking to members across parties, but on stumbling across Joe and Chris, both ambitious and completely lacking in self-awareness, she decided to restrict her film to two young Tories. Who both study at Oxbridge. And are both a little odd. We were invited to laugh at their eccentricities, which left their respective, and far from privileged, parents bemused.

It was all rather sad; their affectations springing from a desire to fit in to some imagine vision of student politics which seemed to largely consist of public school boys washing down port with carefully selected cheeses.

Especially heartbreaking was the revelation that Machiavellian Oxford student Joe’s carefully polished affectations were to mask the working class past he felt unable to share with his Oxford University Conservative Association friends, who incidentally seemed like the most awful bunch of backstabbing sociopaths television has documented in a while.

The events that took place at Oxford University Conservative Association (now OCA, with the ‘university’ removed, after the scandal over the singing of anti-Semitic songs, leaked by an ex-president, indeed a certain Joe Cooke) remain a little mysterious. They do seem to have involved endless back-stabbing, ridiculous attempts to bug meetings, and lots of plotting – again being cruel, snobbish and self-indulgent.

After all, these are students, with no power over any party policy, all they seem to do is port drink and plot. At Cambridge too, Conservative Assocation snobbery abounded as enthusiastic Chris Monk’s application form for election to a committee that seemed mainly concerned with port procuring, was mysteriously lost.

The image of student politics at the UK’s oldest and simultaneously most venerated and reviled universities that the Wonderland presented was essentially one of the very very posh being very very cruel. Maybe student politics is a more cut-throat world than the little of it I had encountered. But the problem with this TV show was greater than this. They made the whole of these two universities seem full of posh, eccentric bullies.

When efforts are made in both Oxford and Cambridge to try to combat centuries of their historic prejudice, with huge access programmes aiming to reach those who wouldn’t have necessarily considered applying, shows like this can do huge damage. With so much false information constantly being repeated about Oxbridge – that’s its some Brideshead Revisited nightmare, full of posh affected sexist racist idiots where if you’re poor you’re not welcome – many already feel that these two universities are not the environment for them.

Here I must declare something of a vested interest; I’ve just finished my first year at King’s College, Cambridge. And I can tell you that the imagery Wonderland presented of the university was essentially rubbish. In fact, I’ve had port maybe once during my whole time here. I’ve never worn a robe or gown, which the programme would make you think ubiquitous. My only experience with the Cambridge Union, positioned as the centre of university life by BBC2, has been protesting outside it.

I’m the first in my family to stay in education past 16, let alone make it to university but this doesn’t mean I’ve felt at odds with the culture of Cambridge. Yes, there are ridiculously posh types, but you’ll find them at any university. And for every old Etonian bragging about old school ties you’ll find one desperate to cover up their public school past. This is a fundamentally silly and unrepresentative type of programming – Oxbridge is generally not stuck in some bizarre port drinking time warp. Although, of course, pockets of it do sadly remain.

Moreover, why does it even matter what students do at Oxford and Cambridge? Why the constant media scrutiny? Whatever happens in these two university cities is always magnified, is always of some strange interest to the press. Is anyone really that bothered? There’s constant rumbling of how we’re to be the ‘leaders of tomorrow’, but knowing some of the people I study with, I really cannot express how much I hope this is not the case.

The media’s fixation on this imagined world of Oxbridge – punts, quads and offices in gorgeous old buildings inhabited by weirdly clever posh people, is not only ridiculous and unfounded but damaging. It spreads misinformation about the majority of students’ experiences and puts off applicants from less traditional backgrounds. Oxford and Cambridge are universities like any other, they just have older buildings, and apparently more difficult entrance criteria. Let’s hope nobody is fooled by BBC2.

Amelia Horgan is an activist and journalist, currently studying history at the University of Cambridge.

One Comment

  1. Tamsyn says:

    Loved this piece of writing. I’m in my first year now but I did the Cambridge University Shadowing Scheme when I was sixteen and Chris was my mentor. I was furious when I saw how he was portrayed here. He’s the nicest bloke ever and when I met him and visited Cambridge for the first time he was brilliant at assuring me there’s a place for everyone here.

    He was right, I got in, and we agreed that he owed me a drink. 🙂

    This documentary literally destoys all the access work that these universities do. It was horrific!!!

    Thank you for writing such a great piece about it – my background is much like yours, and if I’d never met Chris, I wouldn’t have applied here. I had teachers and family telling me that I wouldn’t get in and that even if I did, I’d be bullied and miserable. IT’S ALL NOT TRUE!!!

    Rant over. 🙂

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