William Atkinson

Durham should be proud to be a second-rate Oxbridge

Durham should be proud to be a second-rate Oxbridge
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Durham University has long been considered the destination of choice for Oxbridge rejects. But this is an image some students in Durham are keen to shake off. Durham's Students' Union hopes to end the stereotype that it is the alma mater of choice for those who don't make the cut at Britain's ancient universities. It has published a 48-page 'Culture Commission', in which it says the label is unfair since ‘most students are not in fact unsuccessful candidates of Oxford or Cambridge.' Rather than be embarrassed by this label, Durham students should embrace it.

This knee-jerk decision to try and rebrand Durham is hardly surprising at an institution where Rod Liddle's appearance led to protests and which once even banned its Conservative association. Now Durham students are expressing shock at possessing a 'core demographics of white, Southern, typically privately educated students from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds'. 

This shows a poor sense of history on the parts of the SU members involved. Durham has always aped Oxford and Cambridge. It was established in 1833 to primarily provide degrees for young men on their way to ordination – in the same way as some Oxbridge colleges – and then opening up to a wider public, modernising its curriculum, and admitting women just as its southern counterparts did so.

These facts mean that it is no wonder that the place soon got a reputation as a safe haven for those who couldn’t make it down south. To this day, the common gag is that Durham students greet each other in freshers’ week by asking which Oxbridge college rejected them. As one of those jammy students that actually made it to Oxford, my experience of our northern imitator is largely based on visiting a couple of friends, and their various happy anecdotes. Their rejections were from Exeter College and St Edmund’s Hall, before you ask, and both have hardly suffered from failing to get in to Oxford. In fact, they have probably had much more fun than I did.

Imitating the Oxbridge experience has done wonders for both Durham’s academic standards and for the quality of its student experience. Offers to applicants usually require a mixture of A* and As, and for some courses can be more strenuous than Oxbridge. Teaching quality is amongst the UK’s highest: the university is ranked fifth for History, third for English, and sixth for Maths, according to the latest Times University Guide. Globally it is seventh for Theology and Religion and eighth for Archaeology. Not too shabby. But for any sane undergraduate, all that is only half as important as what they get up to when not in lectures.

It's here that the Durham experience succeeds in both living up to and surpassing the ideal of an Oxbridge experience. The stereotype is of a heady mixture of sport, excessive drinking, and fewer essays than their southern compatriots. Stripped of the incestuous cattiness of the Oxford Union, Cherwell, or OUCA, the general atmosphere in Durham is more sedate and friendly. Such a climate perhaps explains why Durham students are notorious for marrying each other, before departing off to comfortable graduate jobs at Deloitte or PWC. In essence, all the fun and festivity than an aspiring Sebastian Flyte would want, with half the stress.

Nevertheless, there is a self-consciousness amongst some at Durham that they are regarded as the Chicken Cottage to Oxbridge’s KFC. Some have recently tried to talk up 'Doxbridge', in the hope that the additional D will give credence to an obvious fallacy. Obvious in the sense that Oxford and Cambridge are both over 600 years older than their northern compatriot – and that they are currently ranked the second and third best universities in the world, while Durham is 82nd. Applied to the English Football League, the difference is the same as that between Liverpool and Chelsea and Bradford City. Understandably, Durham students do not want to admit to languishing in mid-table obscurity in League Two.

So while Durham students get to enjoy all the best bits of the Oxbridge experience, they do so in a far less pressured environment. For those unlucky applicants to Oxford and Cambridge, it might be considered rather thick-headed to wrack up extraordinary amounts of debt in the educational equivalent of cosplay. But most won’t have to worry much about that. As the SU has pointed out, Durham lags only the Courtauld and various Royal Colleges of Showing Off in the percentage of its attendees from privately educated backgrounds.

In the 2020/21 academic years, 38.4 per cent of new students hadn’t attended a state school. The UK average is 9.8 per cent. The cruel take on that would be that it suggests Durham is the safe space for Hooray Henrys and Tim Nice-But-Dims. But this percentage of privately educated students is as much a consequence of Oxford and Cambridge themselves as it is Durham. Ply a friendly tutor with enough wine at your average Oxford college dinner, and they will rant endlessly about the pressure placed on those assessing Oxbridge applicants to admit more and more state school children. This perhaps explains why 69 per cent of Oxford offers went to state school pupils in 2021, compared to 56 per cent just five years before.

Durham, then, has become the refuge for bright children of the reasonably well-off hamstrung by misguided social engineering. Don’t pity them: they have lucked into the lifestyle they wanted a couple of hundred miles north of where they were expecting, and anyone more academically-minded can still head down to Oxford or Cambridge for a Masters. Yet Durham's own Students' Union wants to now do away with all that great inheritance. Like a Puritan zealot stripping the altars, its members want to rob Durham of its faux-Oxbridge trappings and reduce it to the blandness of Exeter, Warwick, or Bristol.

In doing so, they will take from Durham exactly what has made it Durham. Trying to compete with Oxbridge once enabled the university to haul itself towards greatness. In recent years, Durham has already fallen from being 70th in the Times Higher Education rankings in 2016 to being 162nd this year, the 23rd highest in the UK and behind such late comers as Lancaster and Newcastle. Now is the time for Durham to have a bit more self-confidence and learn to love being a second-rate Oxbridge.

Written byWilliam Atkinson

William Atkinson is the Assistant Editor at ConservativeHome, and a former Spectator intern

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