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Oxbridge... How has it changed since the eighties?

(78 Posts)
cathyandclaire Tue 11-Nov-14 12:30:50

DH and many of our friends studied in Oxford/ Cambridge in the eighties. They were bright all rounders from mixed backgrounds comprehensive/grammar/ public school and all studied/ partied and played lots of sport. They had fun. They handed in dodgy essays occasionally but really pulled out their fingers for exams and got mostly 2.1 with the odd one above or below.

Dd is applying at the moment and we are hearing stories of intolerable stress, relentless workloads and students failing to cope, breaking down and having little time to enjoy university life outside of their studies.

So, is it much, much harder than it was? Or are these stories from very high achievers who can't cope when surrounded by equals or even superiors?
Is it still possible to work and play hard, take advantage of extracurriculars and still get an ok degree from Oxbridge?

Kez100 Tue 11-Nov-14 13:08:05

It's interesting you say they came from all backgrounds in the 80's. I know no one who went to Oxford/Cambridge from a state education background but I know plenty of their offspring who are now going.

cathyandclaire Tue 11-Nov-14 13:16:10

It is probably because of the circles dh mixed in, he went to a very traditional college but wasn't from a major public school and so wasn't invited into the exclusive drinking clubs! His close friends and wider group were very diverse.

JeanneDeMontbaston Tue 11-Nov-14 13:17:23

Might it not depend on who you know, and which college you're at? I'm only speculating.

I was at Cambridge ten years ago, and back teaching now. I did find it stressful - not for the workload, but because there was perhaps not the best kind of support for the rather intense, volatile group that we happened to be. It seems to me, being back here, that this is something that's improved hugely. But even back then I knew people who absolutely loved it, fell in with groups of people who all did wonderful extra-curricular things, and had an experience much like yours.

No university I know of has such an intense workload that you can't do extra-curriculars and enjoy them. But everyone has to learn to cope with the particular issues that stress them out. I don't think it's unique to Oxbridge at all (I've taught in a non-Oxbridge university while I did my PhD).

However, I do think there might be a bit of a correlation between being very bright, and struggling with depression, btw. No sure, and no evidence. The other day I was listening to something by Hugh Laurie talking about his very exciting group of Cambridge friends back in the day (I think that was around 1980), and it struck me that though he must have had a fantastic time, both he and Stephen Fry publically suffer from depression/MH issues. Obviously that's just an anecdote, but it got me thinking how many people I have known who struggle with those issues.

One reason there are more stories in the papers/comments about students struggling with MH is the lifting of the stigma against talking about it - but I think those students may always have been there.

uilen Tue 11-Nov-14 16:36:13

In my experience students work less hard nowadays and the workload is a bit lower than it was twenty years ago. (Maths/physics/engineering)

I can think of quite a few friends from Cambridge who had mental health issues and either took a year out or struggled to get through. I agree that it is more talked about in the media these days but the issue has always been there.

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Tue 11-Nov-14 16:42:47

I was there in the early 90s, we had a killer workload and many of us had MH difficulties. The social mix I knew was as you describe.
It all depends on what sort of person you were and which college you went to, I think.
My brother came up to visit and we hung out with one of his friends from (minor public) school who literally spent the whole day on the sofa watching cricket with a duvet and a load of snacks. I was astonished - I thought everyone shared my austere '9am in the library even on a Saturday' existence.
The exams in my subject are a lot less than they were then and they've tried to slim down the workload - the students read far fewer texts in the original, at any rate.

skylark2 Tue 11-Nov-14 17:51:54

I was at Oxford in the 1980s from a state school - it was about 50% state entry even then. I worked hard and played hard.

It was tough. There were suicide attempts. One girl in my year left after a month. My brother had to take a year out because of MH issues.

The workload is less now in many science subjects because they've gone to 4 year degrees - yes the kids are coming in at a lower level because the content of A levels has dropped, but it's more like 6 months than a whole year. And they changed the exam system so you no longer have 2 per day.

BrendaBlackhead Tue 11-Nov-14 18:04:29

It seemed easier to get in if you were clever. There was none of this "demonstrating a passion" business. Now you have to prove you've wanted to study History or whatever since a foetus. I'm sure in most cases it's a load of flannel and there are no more students desperate to study Norse than there were in 1982 - it's just another hoop to jump through.

JeanneDeMontbaston Tue 11-Nov-14 23:08:13

countess - but (and not saying this with any agenda, just from a position of ignorance), is some of that not to do with school teaching of languages? Numbers doing even modern languages have dropped, and Latin and Greek must be rarer. So perhaps it's harder to study so much in the original?

Snapespotions Tue 11-Nov-14 23:16:39

I was at Cambridge in the early 90s, DSis in the late 80s. Both from a state comprehensive, which wasn't unusual at the time.

We worked hard and played hard, but generally muddled through. I was acutely aware of the high prevalence of mental health problems among my peers, however - eating disorders, self-harming, panic attacks. Lots of very highly strung people who put a lot of pressure on themselves.

I think we just hear more about it these days. Mental health issues are acknowledged more openly.

EagleRay Tue 11-Nov-14 23:18:59

DP studied at Oxford in the late '80s/early '90's. He came from a state comprehensive and got in because he excelled in his subjects. I don't think he was a particularly rounded character though and cannot imagine for a minute that he would survive an interview there today! Also his A level results sound almost mediocre compared to what today's students achieve.

From what I know, he had a good time and spent a fair bit of time messing around (mostly doing bizarre dance routines from what he's told me) but came away with a 2:1.

It was seen as a huge achievement in his family (where going to university wasn't the norm). However, I think the experience has left him carrying around a sense of failure as he's always complaining that he hasn't done as well in his career as he would have hoped. I do wonder what he was told when he was studying, and whether he was led to believe that going to Oxford was a passport to high achievement in his career. He's rather lazy and hedonistic at heart so I think he has possibly done ok despite this smile

UptheChimney Wed 12-Nov-14 07:43:39

I think students are far less resilient than I was (in the late 70s/early80s). We offer far more support & structure now than I had as a undergraduate. While that is better for those with real MH illness, I tend to see a lot "stress" which is not actually a MH issue but to be really frank, a sort of posturing.

<sigh> I think it's because the poor kids nowadays are tested & examined out of all recognition, feel they are responsible scared of the current precariousness and dangers of downward mobility, and scared by the neo-liberal garbage spewed out daily by the press and politicians.

So I coax and cajole them into resilience and optimism; I grin & bear the "I can't cope" stuff and their whining & sense of entitlement. Because underneath it all, they are wonderful talented energetic extraordinary people. Ever optimistic, I hope they'll grow out of it unless they go on to become merchant bankerwankers

Molio Wed 12-Nov-14 09:33:49

Brenda I shouldn't think either university cares two hoots about a lifelong ambition to study history. Indeed I think the view is that it's very odd and possibly unhealthy for a normal 18yo to have a 'passion' for history. I think they hope that any student they take on might have developed a passion by the time they've done their three years, but that's a different thing.

Oxford is certainly extremely pressurised. A good deal of extra pressure is self-imposed by too many of the students and some manage that badly. It's also true that certain subjects are far higher pressure than others, simply by virtue of their workload. And some are far tougher in terms of how they're examined. History, for example, although it has two written pieces of work examined in the final year, still does no second year exams so the degree result hinges on the exams taken in the June of third year. Law is worse again still with nine subjects examined back to back in the course of two weeks. These days at degree level that's very unusual, and requires real resilience.

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Wed 12-Nov-14 09:59:16

Really Molio?
IME (and I don't think this has changed since the 80s) tutors want people who are genuinely interested in the subject. It's a pain in the neck to teach people who don't have that spark of interest. I can't imagine a university tutor who would consider it odd to be passionate about a subject at 18.
In some subjects like Classics, there was always the added issue of needing to make sure the student wasn't planning to get accepted for Classics and then switch to a subject like history or PPE that had a reputation for being harder to get in for. Back in 1989 when I applied you most certainly did have to show you were passionate about the subject. Personal statements were somewhat less polished and formulaic in those days but they were still significant.

BrendaBlackhead Wed 12-Nov-14 10:10:33

Yes, I suppose they have to be on to every game. I know someone who went to Cambridge to do an unpopular subject and then five minutes later was doing English. Not fair! They leapfrogged over all the mugs who had gone down the proper route.

Molio Wed 12-Nov-14 10:42:15

I didn't say students need to be disinterested Countess. Just that this notion of 'passion' is overrated. Brenda's interpretation of what level of interest is required is fairly extreme. Aptitude is always helpful too smile

RabbitOfNegativeEuphoria Wed 12-Nov-14 10:50:47

I was at Cambridge in the late 80s. I don't know what Oxbridge is like now, I have friends with kids there, but their experiences are all different...

I don't think the pressure once there is any higher than it ever was but I think that getting there is much more pressured than it used to be.

RabbitOfNegativeEuphoria Wed 12-Nov-14 10:55:14

Countess - I certainly didn't display any passion for my subject at interview! We spent most of the allotted time talking about that for which I did have a passion (sci fi). But the other bit of the allotted time - the first bit - was doing a series of fiendish maths questions against the clock and having performed sufficiently well on those (not the same as having aced them - I didn't finish one, but my answers displayed 'enough') they then had to decide whether they would actually enjoy having me around for 3 years. I realise this may not have been a common experience.

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Wed 12-Nov-14 10:57:27

See Molio, I think your saying ' Indeed I think the view is that it's very odd and possibly unhealthy for a normal 18yo to have a 'passion' for history' is pretty extreme.
It's one thing to say a passion as opposed to an interest is not compulsory, but 'odd and unhealthy'?!

TheCountessofFitzdotterel Wed 12-Nov-14 11:01:15

Rabbit - I'm sure it's one type of common experience. DH would probably say the same - he's now a maths prof but says he chose to do maths at Cambridge because it was easy. It's the idea that passion for the subject is viewed as 'odd and unhealthy' that I would dispute.

BrendaBlackhead Wed 12-Nov-14 11:02:59

Agree with Rabbit.

In the 80s there was the two EEs offer. I didn't try for Oxbridge but I got a host of two EEs from other (top) places. If you got a Scholarship or Exhibition I believe it was automatically two EEs. (I may be wrong on this!) Do Scholarships/Exhibitions even exist any more?

And further knowledge is power... but it's more people's power. So back in the olden days only a few people knew the procedure. That's what The History Boys is about: having to get in expertise if you don't know the rules of the game. Nowadays everyone can trawl The Student Room, a million other websites, even MumsNet (!) so consequently a student is competing against thousands more well-drilled and clued-up applicants.

RabbitOfNegativeEuphoria Wed 12-Nov-14 11:04:31

DD1 certainly has a passion for more than a few things. Sadly you can't study Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead at university. sad

Preciousbane Wed 12-Nov-14 11:19:36

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Molio Wed 12-Nov-14 11:42:48

That view is verbatim from a current history tutor at Oxford Countess, I'm only passing it on. Perhaps the reality is that he actually secretly quite likes a keen interest but can't stand reading about or hearing endless false declarations of passion. He certainly got quite animated on the subject. There were a number of his colleagues there at the time and no-one disagreed, even though by nature they're quite an argumentative lot. But what do they know?

TheWordFactory Wed 12-Nov-14 11:44:40

Interesting question OP.

I went to Oxbridge in the 80s and now teach there. I also teach somewhere else so can see the current differences.

I think it always was a highly intense place to study, certainly I knew people who did little but study. That said I knew others who played hard towink.

There is still a lot of stuff going on besides study - active politics, sport, drama and music etc. and students still arrive for a tute smelling like a brewery! So some young people are still enjoying themselves.

The biggest difference with the other university is the work load. Three times more at Oxbridge, coupled with shorter terms. Some students find this onerous, which always surprise me since these young people generally juggled A levels with all their other stuff at sixth form!

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