As gleeful marimba tones drag you away from your bed, you start to put together your things – the sun barely having risen above the dreaming spires. After a brief cycle in the biting cold, you arrive past the iconic stone colleges and into the Bodleian Quad, where you join the large queue that has formed patiently next to the statue of the Earl of Pembroke. On the strike of the University Church’s ancient bells, the librarians open the creaking gates and a stream of sleep deprived students pour into the library’s reading rooms. Soon, the whole place is filled, and those ambitious enough to turn up past 10am have to complete a mournful circuit to discover no seats in sight.
If you miss the chance to take such a prestigious exam-season desk, you have to head home. After a joyless trudge back to your college, you find the college library also filled, with some having placed their books and laptops down in the early hours of the morning; even your departmental library is rammed. Defeated, you go back to your room, and work on your small, scratched desk, with your bed crying out for you to return.
Ah, the daily struggle of life as an Oxford student. Except, it isn’t. Instead, substitute the Bodleian for any British University library, the dreaming spires for a depressing 1960s concrete slab, and the Earl of Pembroke with a gaudily painted ‘wellness room’ or garish modern art sculpture, and you have the experience of most students in the country. The inequalities between Oxbridge and the rest of the country’s universities – even their esteemed Russell Group colleagues – could not be more profound than in the most basic of measurements: learning facilities.
While most of the UK’s universities have been taking advantage of the ability to exponentially increase their student numbers – and thus tuition fee income – Oxford and Cambridge’s student numbers have remained solidly stable. This means that the quality of education the infamous pair can provide is ever more vastly different to the rest of the country’s campuses, and increasingly so. I did my undergraduate at Bristol – a university that has become so crowded, they’re even making their students study on the SS Great Britain, an actual boat. The above scenario I have described was my daily routine during my first degree. Throughout exam season, my wake up was so early I regularly walked both to and from the library in the dark, and this was just to secure a seat in a library that would soon fill up so much, you barely had more than a laptop’s-width of space.
When I was landed the first bite of my gargantuan workload here at Oxford – you guys don’t mess about – I was genuinely surprised that you could bag a seat in the library past midday. The Rad Cam does fill up, but even if you can’t get a seat in there, there is always the Gladstone Link, Upper and Lower reading rooms in the Old Library, or the Duke Humfrey’s, just a few steps away. Oh and the Weston Library, Taylorian, Social Science, Law Faculty and English Faculty libraries less than five minutes away. Or if you’ve been extra keen, you could scan your card and step into that deeply problematic but oh-so-beautiful space of the Codrington Library at All Soul’s, which always has a seat regardless of the hour. Failing all of those, every college has its own well-stocked, beautiful reading room or library, open 24/7.
Oxford has been constructed as a temple of learning, and every one of its students is afforded the very best of spaces to conduct their work. It is a shame that throughout the rest of the country – from Durham, to Bristol, to East Anglia – students battle with each other for space. Oxford students – particularly undergrads – should be aware that the experience they are getting is one steeped in privilege and should have no doubts: theirs will not be a normal uni experience. How could it, with stats such as the endowment of St. John’s College (650 students) being 220 times that of Oxford Brookes University (18,000 students)? It is an imperative that these inequalities be recognised. We at Oxford should enjoy, and make use of, the spaces we are privileged to be able to access. However, we should do so in the knowledge that for every student not at Oxbridge – the overwhelming majority of students – these are facilities that exist only in an academic’s personal heaven. Universities without an endless stream of money face particular pressure to grow student numbers, but decisions to expand beyond their existing infrastructure should be taken with extreme caution: doing so could leave them flailing ever more in the wake of the Universities whose success they so desperately try to emulate.