Cambridge has got to change from the inside
That VICE video has a point
Image problems are something a lot of politicians talk about when it comes to winning voters.
It’s something Natalie Bennet touched on when she came to speak in Cambridge a couple of days ago. According to her, a laziness among journalists means newspapers tend to reproduce tired old narratives, pigeonholing groups into stereotypes rather than putting in the effort to engage with them in an original way.
The issues people brought up with Gavin Haynes’ VICE video were, I think, very much the same. Instead of actively engaging with Oxbridge students in a productive environment, here he was deliberately twisting perceptions to reproduce a tired narrative of elitism, decadence and drunken toffs.
I agree with this to a point. If you are imposing a preconceived narrative onto your subjects’ words this is not considered good journalistic practice. However, there are a few things to consider.
Right off the bat, VICE (or at least the magazine part of it) is an ostensibly alternative, arty magazine for young people. Under that mission statement, it is almost unreasonable to expect them to stand up in defence of Oxbridge students, the same people who for all intents and purposes represent ‘the Man’, the most privileged, in our society. As much as you might resent its self-conscious edginess, VICE is about subcultures, about being alternative. Regardless of who actually reads it, it’s not really aimed at people who can expect to leave Uni on a starting salary of £29k.
Still, that doesn’t justify producing a deliberately biased piece of journalism.
Although is it really as biased as all that? Sure, maybe it isn’t exactly representative of the full spectrum of students across Oxbridge; Gavin did no doubt deliberately pick a spot along the river with a particularly good representation of posh rich kids. But turn up in Cambridge from any other place in the world and that would probably be your first impression of us as well. It might not be all of us, sure, but per square foot, I’d be willing to bet Oxford and Cambridge have two of the highest densities of elitism, debauchery, and just generally being out-of-touch in the country.
But bad PR isn’t just bad for current students; it’s bad for access. I get that, and it’s important. But the reality of Cambridge is bad for access as well. Assuming you can convince someone that Cambridge isn’t an elitist plutocracy enough for them to apply, it won’t take them long once they arrive to be scratching their heads about a culture apparently dominated by a collection of people from 4 or 5 schools whose families have all been going to Oxbridge for centuries.
Rather than decrying alternative narratives for being populist or unrepresentative, maybe we should take a long hard look at ourselves. From my own experience of interviewing drunk people, it’s not really reasonable to expect cogent, perceptive arguments whether you’re at the country’s best university or otherwise. If Gavin had really wanted to know what Oxbridge students thought about politics, he could have taken a jaunt down to the Union society and be patronised by some 18 year old Harrow boys. Or he could have spent £200 on a May Ball ticket in order to discuss the plight of the squeezed middle with some white men in cummerbunds.
Dealing with access is going to take more than just complaining about popular perception. Oxbridge has got to change from the inside. A diversity may exist now where it did not a few years ago, but come May Week and you’ll be reminded all too forcefully that the people who really run this place are the ones wearing blazers and necking VKs. Gavin may have abused the magic of Final Cut Pro, but just the fact the Thames is closed down once a year in order to accommodate a group of Olympians on fully-funded scholarships is surely comment enough…
Because not all Oxbridge students are like the toffs in that video. Not all toffs are like the toffs in that video. But for a 3-minute clip I’d say Gavin captured something of Cambridge’s culture quite well.