Behind the Gowns

Each fall, many Harvard students applying to graduate schools consider attending British universities. In this article, a graduate of Oxford University describes experiences and contradictions that a student might face in Britain.

The Harvard student spending some time at one of England's "ancient seats of learning"--such as an Oxford or Cambridge college--will be lulled by superficial impressions of familiarity. He or she will find a lifestyle there very different from that on one of the "glass and redbrick" campuses that are the products of post-war university expansion in the U.K., but the difference is no greater than that between Harvard and a Mid-West American college. Indeed, the "superior" atmosphere common to both "Oxbridge" and Ivy League (which many affect to despise, but secretly covet) may make things seem even cosier. There are the same manicured lawns, lay-out of staircase and quadrangle, dining clubs and societies, even the same assiduous cultivation of alumni and roll-calls of the "great and just" shuttling through to impart their wisdom to the student body.

But scrape deeper--you will start to be jolted. The tradition of higher education in England--from universities as diverse as Sussex and Durham--remains largely one of "academic excellence," not the idea that everyone should try to get "two or three years of college." There are only some 30-odd universities in the U.K. (polytechnics are still rightly or wrongly considered one grade down), and perhaps only 10 per cent of the college-age population get there. The education they receive is correspondingly more concentrated and structured than that of their U.S. counterparts. All secondary education--whether state-run, or private at the misnamed "public schools," is rooted in competition: despite the introduction of comprehensive state schools which take all abilities (and thus avoid social divisions), children are still "tracked" internally. The "public schools"--the institutions that produced the rulers of the Empire--still thrive and take a disproportionate number of places at universities--expecially Oxbridge.

Specialization comes early in English schools--at 15 or 16, many must make the choice between the arts and sciences, and over the next three years are systematically tested and graded through the General Certificate of Education in a variety of subjects at both Ordinary (O) and Advanced (A) Levels. Admission to university will depend on A Level grades--and in the case of Oxford and Cambridge also on their own internal examinations.

This attitude and background must be understood to make sense of our university system. It is not something to be drifted into--but a precious and limited resource for a specific program of study. Hence most students on a 3- or 4-years B.A. or B.Sc. Honours degree do it straight through. Taking years off--except when built into a foreign language or science program--is frowned upon. Despite the introduction of "joint honours" schools in recent years, it remains true that choice is restricted by U.S. standards--if you study History or English, you do that and nothing else for your degree.


Grounding in your chosen subject is thus much more comprehensive--which is why many Americans doing a second degree in England do an undergraduate B.A. course. Graduate work is correspondingly one stage further advanced. Ph.D. candidates, especially in humanities or social sciences; who have chosen their research topic will be left to get on with it. They may or may not see their supervisor regularly--but there will be few or no "programmes," graduate classes, seminars or the like. At the age of 21 or 22 you will be accorded the respect of being an independent scholar, and left to produce the goods. It can be frightening--but also exhilarating.

For most, however, the end of their university education comes with "Finals" at the end of three or four years, marking the completion of their courses. The examinations taken then partly or totally determine the degree classification that is all-important (foreign students often do these in two years, as they are exempted from preliminary exams). The award of First, Second or Third Class Honours has a psychological and employment importance far beyond the "laude" distinctions at Harvard. And though some universities use coursework grades to determine honors, many still adhere to the classic "sudden death" formula I experienced in reading History at Oxford. After three years of tutorial work with no examinations and only perfunctory gradings, one is faced with Finals in the hot and sticky month of June of one's third year--ten examination papers, each three hours in length, covering the whole of three years work, in the space of ten days. On the outcome of these the whole of my degree classification depended. Was it enlightened--in giving me three years free of pressure to pursue my studies in the round, indulge a host of extra-curricular activities and allow me to become a "civilised citizen"--or barbaric, in inflicting what must be close to the ultimate in physical and intellectual pressure?

This paradox is always present in any survey of the British university system. Superficially, it seems more elitist and restrictive than the American--but is it, in fact, when the vast majority of those who get to college not only have all their tuition fees paid by the government, but a considerable proportion of their living expenses as well? The introduction of government aid since 1945 has grafted a meritocracy onto a system of tradition designed to make "gentlemen." The student lounging in the Junior Common Room of one of the Oxford colleges (often medieval in origin), taking afternoon tea (provided by the college butler) and resplendent in T-shirt and jeans, may be the son of a lord, a nouveau riche city businessman or a coal miner: you won't automatically be able to tell which. Course-work may be specialized and conservative--but it is leavened by the drama, debating, music, sports, and politics groups that English students throw themselves into in pursuit of our reputation as "gifted amateurs." The average English student's liberal arts knowledge and appreciation is extremely high--his general knowledge of applied science and technology (unless he is a scientist) appalling.

This recognition of weakness in the structure sparked off the "Great Debate" over education, instigated by Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan two years ago. Central to many widespread demands are calls for greater emphasis on applied science and the production of engineers, technologists, etc., from the universities--which may seem innovative. But in other demands for "commoncore" curricula in both secondary and higher education--minimum standards of literacy and numeracy as opposed to flexible choice--the English tendency to conservatism in education is manifest. Many academics still complain that too few students are brought up on the classics of the English literary heritage, and there are constant letters to the London Times on the harmful influences of T.V. on children--especially the dreadful impact of detective shows from our linguistically degenerate cousins across the Atlantic. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so English tutors abhor transatlantic jargon and the fondness for acronyms so prevalent in the U.S.--as caustic essay comments from my Oxford tutors would testify!

Going into an Oxford college, you will find that coexistence of the traditional and the modern that all but the English would find quite schizophrenic. Your college tutor may call you "Mr. Marsden," offer you a glass of sherry on arrival, even in some cases like you to wear your academic gown to tutorials--but at the same time be prepared to have you dropping in at all hours of day and night in a way. that Harvard professors, with casual attitudes to first names but rigid ones to office hours, would find quite intolerable. The same student who will don a tuxedo for formal dinner parties and acquiesce in the "sub-fusc" of 3-piece suit, bow-tie, white shirt and gown that Oxford students are required to wear for Finals, may be an ardent devotee of new-wave and disco music. Latin grace at formal dinner in an often centuries-old college hall will be followed by a drink in the bar with jukebox afterwards. The computerized handouts, course information and I.D. cards in many cases just do not exist--instead there may be one college secretary who is a shy, middle-aged lady who still keeps the books in goose quill.

Much of the talk at Harvard at present seems to be of student "assemblies" and representation. I doubt whether the average English student is much more political than his Harvard counterpart--but he dutifully goes out and votes for college representatives and student union officials who have far more power and recognition than here. In fact, in the U.K. student unions are financed through levies on municipal councils--though financial control is left firmly with the students.

Cynics would argue that the English establishment has merely done a marvelous job of integrating budding student politicos into its ranks. Certainly the Far Left are a sad procession of ghosts on English campuses, and many university student unions are now run by Conservative students elected on 50-60 per cent campus-wide ballots. But the sense of decency and "fair play" can still stir sizeable student numbers to protest--two recent examples being demonstrations against university investments in South Africa (Harvard and the Kennedy School, take note!), and greatly increased overseas students fees.

So don't expect English universities to be either relics of the Empire or temples of modernism. You will be astonished by the extent to which the structures can be penetrated by personal links and informal approaches--in academic applications particularly. You will not be required to fill out things in sextuplicate. You will find chemistry tutors who write musicals on the side, and the head of an Oxford college who also chairs a very popular radio quiz program. The most brilliant intellects will display a modesty bordering on absent-mindedness: someone who says he dabbles in Anglo-Saxon poetry may well turn out to be the world's greatest expert on it. If you can accept all this, and see it not merely as something which is "cute" (an expression, incidentally, which the English hate), but as a vital part of a process whereby the past and present are kept in equilibrium, you will be a long way to getting the most out of English university education. Yes, the English do take their academic work seriously--but it's not "the done thing" to broadcast the fact.

Gordon Marsden, a Kennedy Fellow from England studying international relations at Harvard, read Modern History at Oxford as an undergraduate. He is an occasional contributor to the Opinion Page.