Not every genius aspires to Oxbridge

Once again Oxford and Cambridge universities are being raked over the coals for not being inclusive enough, this time by race-baiting MP David Lammy.

One of the things which annoys me about these articles, and the fake outrage that underpins them, is the casual assumption that the pinnacle of everyone’s dreams is to go to Oxford or Cambridge. The idea that some extremely bright and talented people might not want to go to either isn’t entertained. As someone commented at Mr Worstall’s:

That’s the thing though isn’t it – people wanting to get in to a different university by choice. Where friends are going, where they liked on a visit, where a particular course is being run, where particular lecturers are based, where particular employers are based. Or simply not far from part of the family.

Back in December I wrote a post about my alma mater, Manchester, and mentioned a fellow engineering student:

She went by the name of Wendy and came from somewhere near Nottingham, and she was probably the cleverest person I’ve ever met anywhere, one of those extraordinarily gifted people who just turn up out of nowhere.  I think she completed her four year course with an average mark across all subjects of around 90%, and won every damned prize going in the engineering school such that even after her second year her name graced most of the plaques in the foyer.  I remember her sitting a 2-hour engineering maths exam and walking out at the earliest opportunity, which was 30 minutes.  She told me she’d finished after 20 minutes and that included checking.  She got 100%.  She was also a Grade 8 at piano and clarinet.

She was one of those freaks who could have waltzed into Oxford or Cambridge. Indeed, she even went to the open day at Cambridge so it’s not like she wasn’t aware of her options. But she came away not liking what she saw. She grew up in a rough town, raised by her mother (a nurse) after her father disowned her at birth. Posh she wasn’t, and she found the atmosphere at Cambridge not much to her liking. She was particularly unimpressed when someone started rabbiting on about house activities and how they could be restricted for poor behaviour (or something), and decided she’d rather study somewhere she could fit in better. That’s not to say she was critical of Cambridge, she just realised she’d be a lot happier in Manchester (where she slotted straight in). I don’t know how typical her case was, but she represented someone from a poor background who could have gone to Cambridge but simply chose not to. The idea that everyone should aspire to go to Oxford or Cambridge, and those who don’t make it are somehow missing out, is absolute bollocks.

I should add, there is no chip on my shoulder about Oxford or Cambridge either. Consider this nested comment, again from Mr Worstall’s:

“Oxbridge is hard. Really fucking hard. After a soft half-term to allow students with various A-levels to catch up, the pace of acceleration is breathtaking, and they never ever pause to allow students to catch up. You have to do it all on your own.”

A soft half-term? Are you joking? In weeks 1 and 2 we did the whole of A-level further maths! Something like 4 or 8 lectures and 2 tutorials to catch up 2 years for those who’d not done it! It was a rude awakening, I can tell you. Your feet didn’t touch the ground for 9 weeks upon arrival (the 8 week terms thing is a bit of a myth – there’s 0th and 9th weeks too, and if you’re unlucky, 10th week.).

I’d have lasted for about an hour in an environment like that. I found the maths at Manchester hard, and scraped my degree with a 2:1 thanks to a very strong industrial placement in my final year (being practical and goal-driven counts for a lot in a small company).

So yeah, Oxford and Cambridge are definitely for the brightest among us, but that doesn’t mean the brightest automatically aspire to either.


32 thoughts on “Not every genius aspires to Oxbridge

  1. Second comment was me – on re-reading it I feel I should tell a little more. So this was engineering at Oxford, 1st year. We had 10 lectures a week, in the mornings mostly IIRC. It was 18 years ago now, so I forget the details. We had labs and similar some afternoons, and butt tons of worksheets to get through for tutorials, which were I think twice weekly.

    The whole further maths in 2 weeks thing was 4 or 8 of those 20 lectures, and 2 of the 4 tutorials. So that was alongside the other stuff! They’d also sent us mechanics worksheets for the holidays prior without any indication of what books we’d look in, so that was a shock when I got raked over the coals at the first tutorial.

    It was a hellish sink-or-swim kind of environment. Oxford is NOT a teaching university – it is a research uni that has to teach undergrads cos it’s expected of them.

    That’s how yo go from coasting A-levels and thinking you’re bright to struggling and scraping a 2:1 due to my supervisor not understanding my (with hindsight crappy) or having much supported 4th year project and giving me a middle-of-the-2:1-band mark that counted for half the final year.

    But what it DID do for me:

    – self-starting: you learn to get your backside in gear cos there’s nobody else there to drive you.
    – Wide experience of different branches of engineering: this has helped me immensely in my career.
    – humility – no matter how good you think you are at 18, go there and you’re probably mr. middle of the road.
    – taught me that your best is never good enough and you can always do better. Again, helped me in my career.
    – let me experience a genuine fear of failure, which was charachter building.
    – taught me that the more left-wing a housemate is, the more likely he is to be a selfish disgusting oxygen thief no matter how nice he is otherwise.

    FWIW 🙂

  2. Heard his interview on R4 Today programme this morning and it made my blood boil. The problems here are:
    – schools. Failing to inspire students
    – parents. Failing to support their children
    – him. For insinuating that these institutions are going out of their way to deny places to worthy candidates.

    Apparently, all these are the fault of Merton College.

  3. I don’t mind the high pace but I do mind the crappy teaching at these places. There is no excuse and these tax thief lecturers should be Ecksed.

    I went to a good but not top university and worked pretty hard and did well. Top of my class and all that. I was actually average at high school although within quite a strong group (Science focus – I went to high school abroad). Doing my Masters at Nottingham Uni was much tougher though. Suddenly below average and at least half of the teaching was decidedly below par. Pretty depressing experience. It is similar at work at the moment as there are plenty of people 10 years younger than me at a similar level. To be fair there are plenty of guys senior to me who are worse than me – so there is hope!

  4. The real point of the piece, and most of the comments, was that Mr Lammy wants to be the Toussaint Louverture of our time with Oxbridge just a handy fulcrum to help him lever his way to power. You could replace Oxbridge by something else generally – but not universally – desired and the effect would be the same. It’s a sort of figurative Oxbridge that Lammy is interested in.

    As for your actual Oxbridge, anyone who’s up to it but thinks he doesn’t want to go there should question his own motives thoroughly and then decide accordingly. There’s no point wasting a place on someone who won’t use it to best advantage. My own advice would usually be to give it a go and if you don’t like it leave after a year. Any other uni would be keen to accept someone who has passed first year at Oxford or Cambridge. In fact many are happy to recruit students who have failed first year at O or C.

  5. We’ve just moved from Cambridge, where my wife studied for two years. And my son was there gaining his degree from 2011, so I know the town well. I know it’s purely anecdotal, but there did seem to be quite a few black students there. And – I don’t know whether David Lammy dealt with this – very large numbers of Asians. Now the thing about these black students is that they all seemed to be distinctly upper-class posh. They played the game, wearing gowns and cycling around clutching books, and attending chapel and the like. They had upper-class accents and manners.

    Conversely, I never heard anyone suck their teeth at something they didn’t like, or launch into a patois-inflected rant about racism. Nobody showed their arse-crack from between the folds of their gown, or rolled their shoulders like a boxer while strolling on the The Backs.

    So my guess is that the dons on the admissions panels were very happy to accept any students who had the ability and the attitudes that would allow them to succeed in this very odd environment. It seems they are biased, but on issues of culture. Which is only sensible, really.

  6. My hall at Manchester seemed to be full of the sprogs of government officials of various obscure African shithole dictatorships.

    Oxbridge rejects or just couldn’t afford it?

  7. Apart from not liking the culture there’s also things like not liking the place. You’ve got to live there for 3 years, you’d better like it. I really don’t like Oxford much. It’s a rather twee place and very expensive.

    Also, sometimes, Oxford and Cambridge aren’t the best places, depending on what you want. I didn’t do a degree, but I think I’d have preferred Bristol for computer science than Oxford. Oxford has a strong emphasis on low-level programming. If you want to design programming languages, it’s a good choice, but if you want to learn things about building applications (including things like human/computer interaction and data management), Bristol is probably better.

  8. “Also, sometimes, Oxford and Cambridge aren’t the best places, depending on what you want. I didn’t do a degree, but I think I’d have preferred Bristol for computer science than Oxford. ”

    Shit- you really are the bloke on the M4 aren’t you? Can’t do Oxford as it’s on an A road, just have to keep on motoring onward towards Bristol…

  9. Frankly I think most people have no good reason to go to any university, unless they are in a STEM field, let alone go Oxbridge.

    (sings) If I could turn back time…

    …I would skip university entirely. Read economics and then spent the next 15 years unlearning all the Keynesian crap I had been taught. And did I need any of that to work in the City as a commodity broker and later as an investment banker? Hell no.

  10. @Perry

    “unless they are in a STEM field”

    and law and medicine.

    “(sings) If I could turn back time…”

    Pass your wisdom down to the next generation and it won’t be wasted.

    “unlearning all the Keynesian crap”

    Its nearly a hundred years since he made his two bold predictions for 2030 in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. The first being that we would all be eight times better off in economic terms, the second being the three-hour work day or the fifteen-hour week.

    His economic growth prediction has been fairly accurate and if anything, it will probably be slightly underestimated by 2030 but despite this prosperity his shorter work week remains elusive right up until this day and will continue to remain so. Why, because the fruits of this economic growth will always flow into increased land prices which will continue to outstrip wage increases. Why is it that economists back then and right up until this very day remain bamboozled by this economic fact, don’t they teach this at yooni?

  11. @ John²

    I think that bloke on the M4 is the artist formerly known as Bloke in Swindon who rebranded himself so as to differentiate himself from Bloke in Spain.

    So he may have something specifically against the A420 rather than A roads in general.

  12. “his shorter work week remains elusive”: oh I~ don’t know. I suspect that rather a lot of employees don’t actually do work for more than 15 hours a week. It probably hadn’t occurred to him that they’d just lounge around in the office rather than go home.

  13. In terms of billed hours, I have a 15-20hr week. Problem is, it takes a good whack more than 40 presence hours to actually acheive this. But I’m not unhappy with the situation considering I could be working for a firm demanding 5, 6 or even 7 billed hours per day, which is utterly intellectually/mentally crushing (I’ve occasionally worked at that level during rush periods) and requires 50-70 hour weeks (unless you’re in the kind of firm with the kind of client where you can bill every waking moment you’re even staring at a file, but that offends me on a professional and ethical level).

  14. @abacsb, 6 or 7 a day is quite a reasonable expectation for n00bs and at least for what we do crushes nobody in any dimension. Many people will stay at that level for life. Just as not all aspire to oxbridge not all aspire to management.

    I agree once you are running the shop it is not compatible with an outside life so needs to be confined to rush periods.

  15. Perry de Havilland,

    “Frankly I think most people have no good reason to go to any university, unless they are in a STEM field, let alone go Oxbridge.”

    There’s a great video on YouTube of filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Werner Herzog and John Carpenter telling people to just make films, not to go to film school.

    I’d say that if you want to be a programmer, the best way to learn is install Visual Studio Community, Unity 3D, get a Pluralsight subscription ($30/month) and build a game or an app. Make something you want to make. Something you can try and fail at. Fill in gaps with Google, clubs, forums etc. The only reason to get a degree is to get your foot in the door.

  16. @BiG, trust me when I say that aside from a very, very few Stakhanovite freaks, 6-7 hours a day of what we do is absolutely crushing and takes 12+ presence hours to acheive, even if non-management. 5 is OK if you’ve just got drudge work, but if it’s intellectually challenging, like most of what we work on is, it’s hard to sustain beyond a few days. And we’re talking time actually spent *working* on cases, none of this bollocks “If I’m 30 seconds into a billing unit it’s a whole unit” stuff, or “add an extra unit if you go for a pee or to make a coffee cos you’ll still be thinking about it”. We don’t even apply a “billing units” concept. After all, we’re not lawyers 🙂

  17. Are there interesting one-to-one discussions to be had in STEM subjects which the Oxbridge tutorial system can help to foster? As an arts graduate with a subsequent degree acquired near Vaux-le-Vicomte, it’s interesting rubbing bloggish shoulders with predominantly STEMmish folk who occasionally seem a little complacent about their academic hinterland and trades.

  18. I do trust you! Different jobs iz different. And our n00bs deliver more hours but (prodigies aside) less and lower quality output for it. The really profitable people are those who do the billable work fast and well but have neither the overhead or salary of management types.

    But unless you are really small and everyone is chipping in hunting clients and doing the bookkeeping, I am fascinated to know what could cause a 50% hours overhead among your handle-crankers.

  19. @dearieme – “I suspect that rather a lot of employees don’t actually do work for more than 15 hours a week”

    I get your point but all things being equal we have made enormous improvements in productivity. Looking back in time we have witnessed the largest improvement in global living standards ever to have taken place coupled with very high economic growth during Keynes forecasting period, the fruits of which have all been taken up by higher land and house values. Yes, he was right and we have made huge leaps forward but his second prediction hasn’t and never will come to bear, we have continually failed to create the situation where we can receive the ultimate reward, the freedom from toil and having the choice to spend our time as we see fit.

    Here is my prediction for the next one hundred years. As we continue to make progress in medicine, health and life expectancy, so will our ability to work longer increase and measured over our lifetime our actual working hours (including standard wife) will increase further as the retirement age is extended.

  20. @BiG – the 50% overhead is a combination of small interruptive tasks, usual office chatting (which is important for the life of the firm – I’ve worked somewhere where everyone was shut away in their offices except for lunch and it was soul-destroying), lunch, coffee, etc, but the vast majority of it is simply down to the fact that the job is mentally exhausting cos you’ve got to be firing on all cylinders the whole time otherwise you’ll screw up massively. Formal meetings are infrequent so while they might knock you down on any given day overall they’re a small contribution to that. If we billed on a rigorous “billing units” basis we’d be billing more, since many of the small tasks would add probably another half hour or hour a day (if not more) most days. But part of the foundation of trust we have with the clients is that we don’t do that kind of thing. It’s part of our business model, as it were.

    Where I was before, I was one of the highest producers in the entire multinational group at an average of just over 4 hrs per worked day IIRC. We had a guy there with us who was sat in front of his work (not even FB or anything) and averaged under 2 actually billed hours per day cos he was so slow that we had to clip most of his recorded hours (for some reason higher management wouldn’t countenance simply reducing his ridiculous hourly rate to something which better reflected his productivity – apparently it needed to be artificially massively overinflated so he had something to “aspire” to… My view was that it should have been higher than he was worth for the “aspiration” thing, which wasn’t an entirely invalid point, but not double or triple which was pointless.)

  21. @TMB: “Are there interesting one-to-one discussions to be had in STEM subjects which the Oxbridge tutorial system can help to foster? ”

    Short answer – yes. It’s normally 1-to-2 in tutorials, but since my tutorial partner bogged off to the slightly softer Engineering, Economics and Management I mostly had 1-1 sessions, for which i was grateful.

    Mostly tutorials are going through worksheets you’d prepared previously and had handed in to be marked. It’s in these situations where you get stuff explained in such a manner that you hopefully develop a deeper understanding of the subject-matter rather than just churning the handle on the maths. It’s much more focused than a seminar-type setup (which were a big feature of the Oxford Engineering 4th year.

  22. I went to Cambridge. Read Maths the first year. Realized I couldn’t hack it and did Comp Sci instead which was less intense.

    That’s how yo go from coasting A-levels and thinking you’re bright to struggling and scraping a 2:1

    Or in my case a Desmond…

    I don’t regret going to Cambridge and, indeed, I’m somewhat of a loyal alumnus of my college, but it certainly isn’t for everyone and I can absolutely see how it could seem unwelcoming to potential applicants from urban sink estates. The traditions and history can be overwhelming, as can having the person who literally wrote the book (or won the prize), as a supervisor/lecturer/tutor etc. Cambridge certainly isn’t an ivory tower but it can look like one from the far outside. In fact although a good number of my friends were not of the traditional “public school” variety, there were – and I assume still are – enough of the posher classes around that, if you’ve barely met one before, you’ll feel like you’re in some kind of period drama.

  23. Thanks abacab. I suspect our errors are less likely to be catastrophic than yours, and/or we get more opportunities to find them. They can be, but you’d be really unlucky.

    The constant interruptions are a real bane. I think I will just have to live with them forever, and hope the day never comes when I can’t do any billable work any more. I am however working on culling the unnecessary distractions for the staff.

  24. “Read Maths the first year. Realized I couldn’t hack it …”: I was lucky. I was very strong at maths at school but in the class we had a fellow who was The Real McCoy. The gap between the real thing and the sort of maths ability required for, say, the mathematical end of physics or engineering is unbridgeable. So I was not tempted to try a maths degree.

    Note that when Einstein said that he was no mathematician he wasn’t kidding. He knew Real McCoys too. When he needed difficult maths he didn’t open a book and teach himself, he found someone to coach him.

  25. Suddenly below average and at least half of the teaching was decidedly below par.

    A lot of the teaching at Manchester was absolutely woeful, very outdated and the lecturers incompetent to teach. It was obvious they didn’t want to teach, they’d rather be doing research. I heard the teaching was actually better at Manchester Metropolitan, the former poly.

  26. The real point of the piece, and most of the comments, was that Mr Lammy wants to be the Toussaint Louverture of our time with Oxbridge just a handy fulcrum to help him lever his way to power.


  27. My hall at Manchester seemed to be full of the sprogs of government officials of various obscure African shithole dictatorships.

    Yeah, you said that before, which is odd because I was there much the same time and I never saw them (I was in Owens Park). But my boarding school was much like that, full of Nigerians with dodgy fathers.

  28. Okay, having read the exhanges between abacab and Bloke in Germany and all the talk of billable hours, I’m trying to work out what field they’re in. I’m going to go with pimping.

  29. Not every Nigerian who goes to Boarding school in England has a dodgy father. Only half of them do speaking from experience. David Lammy is a slimy power-hungry politician who should be watched closely. His behaviour during the tragedy at Grenfell proves that.

  30. Allen hall. Could be just that small samples are likely to be further from the mean than the giant council estate of OP.

    Not a pimp.

  31. Allen hall.

    Ah yeah, just next door. I knew a guy who was in there 1996-7. Only visited the place once, though. OP was great, btw.

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