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Harvard Over A Pint

By Natalie R. Toms

Like many of the most brilliant ideas ever dreamt up amongst the dreaming spires of Oxford University, this one came to me in the pub.

Unfortunately, unlike most such ideas, this one was followed up. And to be fair, put soberly, it still sounded okay—to get one over on our journalistic cousins in Cambridge, England, by writing an exchange column, not with the Fenland polytechnic (oh, how many oh-so-hilarious epithets we have for the place) but with The Crimson.

I, as editor of The Oxford Student, could decide to write a comparison of the different undergraduate experiences at Oxford and Harvard. Only one flaw in the plan: I have never been to Harvard, and so anything which I write can only be based on prejudice and disinformation, backed up with a video night spent with Good Will Hunting.

On second consideration, however, prejudice and disinformation are probably entirely appropriate to a comparison of this type, because whilst The Crimson is modelled on The New York Times, we at The Oxford Student aspire to the editorial content of The Sun—a tabloid famous for such front-page headline genius as ‘Zip Me Up Before You Go Go’ (re: George Michael’s outing in an LA toilet).

So, be aware that whilst the opinions below may not be reflective of Oxford student opinion as a whole, or the facts as you know them at Harvard, it would hardly be in the spirit of contrast for me to write anything tainted by research. So here, instead, are a sprinkling of the general bigotries which we hold about American college life.

Drinking. You can’t do it legally (well, for the first couple of years). Ha. Whilst I’m under no illusions that the entire American undergraduate population is unaware of the effects of a bottle of beer—or two (I have watched Dawson’s Creek)—I can’t help but feel that this law must detract from some entertainment. Here, each College has its own bar serving cut-price drinks; we get sprayed with champagne following the end of exams (although this is officially banned due to the apparent dangers of popping corks); and at Freshers Fair (known to you as Freshman Week) one political society advertises itself with the moniker: ‘Be a socialite, not a socialist. Drink from eight.’ And then there are the capacious pubs. But I suppose that the downside is that all this drinking is suicide for our…

Work. I hear that you are assessed via a Grade Point Average. This sounds like tyranny—you must have to, like, do work all the time. We, in contrast, are only assessed in eight exams at the end of our final year, which has the obvious benefit of meaning that no one does any work until several months before they graduate, and can waste their time writing columns commenting on…

Tom Paulin. You have never had the honour of hearing him speak due to a kerfuffle over his views on Israel. We have never heard him speak because no English student has ever been known to go to a lecture. What a waste of…

University funding. You have it and we don’t. Not a term goes by in Oxford without a disgruntled don heading over to the other side of the pond citing the abysmal pay offered by this supposedly “world-class” institution. Oxford is a primarily government-funded institution, and government funding has fallen dramatically since the 1980s. In short, times are hard, and it’s no wonder that our research ratings are slipping and we haven’t won a Nobel Prize in decades. Also, whilst Harvard possesses an endowment that would be the envy of an elephant, Oxford’s is the equivalent of a small field mouse. For some demented reason we still seem to be under the illusion that education is a right, not a privilege, and therefore never stop moaning about…

Student finance. Yes, it’s true, we are currently protesting the fact that University fees are due to rise from $1500 to $4500 per annum. I recognise that you might find this ridiculous. To us, however, it is a disaster, since it is likely to damage “access,” seen by many here to be the real issue in higher education policy. To explain the depth of feeling on the subject: it is a scandal to end all scandals if someone is accepted into Oxford following a parental donation, whereas I hear that over there you can deal with the idea of letting in a couple of sub-standard students if it means a few extra libraries for everyone else. In the ongoing debate in Britain, Harvard is constantly cited by both sides: by lefties as a terrible example of inequity, to which only the privileged can aspire, and by the right as an example of somewhere where funding from the rich is high enough to support bursaries for the poor.

And obviously I don’t know which cliché is true, or which system preferable. In the best non-committal, four-in-the-morning essay style (some things all students have in common), I should probably conclude that both have their benefits. And whatever our flaws, no one can say that we don’t, well, offer great value for money.

Natalie R. Toms is in the second year of a Politics, Philosophy, and Economics degree at St. Edmund College, Oxford. She is the editor of The Oxford Student.

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