Illustration by Rachel Prince
Once we get into Oxford, we become privileged. Regardless of who we were before and where we came from, we have a form of privilege now. We get access to an endless stream of books and resources, to the largest library system in the UK, to grant money, an education, the careers service, free college-branded stationery, and we get to see University Parks in the morning sun. We get into a routine of utilising all of these things to the end of our own personal academic success. Or for some of us, the end of an enjoyable university experience (sometimes… maybe… if you’re a fine artist). We reluctantly get out of bed, do some reading on SOLO, some essay-writing on the laptops we bought with our academic grants, grab some lunch, attend hundreds of Teams meetings, go for a walk, go to the pub, feast our eyes upon the Rad Cam in the darkness, and then go back to bed. There isn’t time to think about anything else. Thus, it becomes easy to forget about the outside world.
Oxford sells each student the idea of a personalised education and a huge breadth of opportunity to help them along the way. We are all focused on ourselves: our own studies, our own careers, our own enjoyment and our own interests. We’re in a ‘take’ mindset. This is the bubble I want to talk about, not the bubble that keeps us from the ‘real world’ of jobs (not that again!). This is bigger than that. This is the bubble that keeps us from helping those who lack our privilege and those who are in dire need of help. It keeps us from challenging a backwards system that we have become complicit in.
The Oxford bubble can be great for us. But could it be toxic to the rest of the world?
If you have ever played New Super Mario Bros on the Wii, then you’ll know what I mean: each of the players try to save themselves and forget to check what is going on anywhere else on the screen, and now all of the little characters are trapped in bubbles with their little eyes wide open and a look of despair on their faces as they slowly grind to a halt. Game over.
Now imagine the Oxford version, where Luigi’s in a gown over his dungarees, and everyone’s focused on squashing the head of an essay like it’s a brown pooey thing with nasty teeth (apparently called a Goomba). Instead of a blue sky and green pipes in the background, it’s the Rad Cam. Far in the distance is St Hugh’s, because we can’t even see anywhere in the world that’s further away than that.
I want us all to ask ourselves: what else could we be doing with this privilege we’ve been given, with these resources?
At a talk at the Ruskin School of Art this year, Lola Olufemi raised the idea of the university as an institution that keeps all of its resources inside its walls for a small group of people each focused on their own development. The university is a kind of harmful hoarder. (Go read her book ‘Feminism Interrupted’ – it’s amazing!) The walls of the university keep us from looking out into the wider world. They keep us from fighting for social justice, from changing the system, from acting on and practising what we preach. The university may not be willing to freely give their resources to people outside of their walls any time soon. But could we do this for them?
Every penny and every gift and every opportunity that our colleges, our faculties and the university give us is an act of redistribution. What we do with it becomes another, one that could be better, one that could make change. What if those who are able take their grant money and use it to enact social change? What if we used the free printing facilities available at the colleges that have them, and make posters, or zines, or write books, and start a movement? What if we give any free meals from college events to the homeless? What if we write to our college presidents and ask the college to stop sending us merchandise, postcards and Christmas cards, but use the money for something important instead?
I’m still thinking about what to redistribute and how and where. I haven’t got it all figured out. But it’s time I stopped focusing on my own thoughts and goals and instead passed on this way of thinking to you, so we can work together. Let’s do something good with our Trinity term. Let’s change this university for the better.