Radcliffe Camera is pictured on September 20, 2016 in Oxford, England. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Michaelmas Mayhem

View from Oxford: the beginning of a year unlike any other

The swifts have left, and the young people have returned for what will surely go down as the strangest start to Michaelmas Term in nine hundred years. It is difficult not to feel for the Freshers, whose first taste of Oxford must have been a thoroughly bewildering experience in a new and unfamiliar environment. For the returners, it is like a bad dream in which everything is simultaneously familiar and strangely foreign.

Historians may well compare this year’s students with the inhabitants of Oran in Albert Camus’s The Plague—divided between those who resigned themselves to their situation, and others “who rebelled and whose one idea now was to break loose from the prison-house.” It is perhaps not surprising that Freshers’ Week has been followed by a spike in Covid-19 cases; fierce strictures were issued as to where students were allowed to be, and when, and with whom—but it was not at all clear whether their progenitors had ever met a teenager.

It has been a thoroughly miserable start to the academic year

The colleges have demanded that contracts be signed, by which students undertake to abide by Covid-19 regulations as they stand, but also as they might appear after modification in the future. Some have done so meekly, while others have made their mark knowing that such contracts are well-nigh unenforceable. One student came to an understanding with his college, and simply signed an amended contract from which had been expunged all the requirements to which he objected; others have refused to sign at all. Chaos reigns.

There are rumours of steep fines being handed down at Christ Church, while at St Catherine’s a threat of the use of body cameras for porters and decanal officers—in response, it must be said, to some deeply unpleasant behaviour on the part of certain students—was quickly and sensibly rescinded. Tutors have reminded their charges that the list of essential items for tutorials now includes warm clothes, because teaching has to be done in rooms with windows and doors open. It is only October, and the holly trees in the University Parks are already thick with berries.

Inevitably there has been some grumbling, with disgruntled students taking to social media to express their dissatisfaction. One trope has been that the University is not now providing value for £9,250 a year, compared with the Open University’s £3,096 for home study. This is to compare apples with oranges, and the urge to remind its proponents that people are free to leave the former and join the latter is strong. Meanwhile, the fact that the colleges need to maintain an income in order to keep the domestic staff on the books seems to have been lost entirely.

It has been a thoroughly miserable start to the academic year, but, at the same time, it has not been without its flashes of colour and interest. In this respect all eyes are once again on Oriel. The Commission established to decide the fate of the college’s statue of Cecil Rhodes has already drawn controversy; writing in the Daily Telegraph on 6 September, Daniel Hannan called it “a hanging jury”, made up of a significant majority of members whose previous public statements suggest that it will be “unlikely to reach the conclusion that nine randomly chosen members of the public would reach.”

At St Catherine’s a threat of the use of body cameras for porters was quickly and sensibly rescinded

It is whispered that the Commission has received a five hundred submissions; furthermore, it is murmured that a number of communications have come from Oriel students alleging that in June the discussions about the statue in the Junior and Middle Common Rooms took place within a culture of harassment, intimidation, and Salem-like public denunciation of anyone who dared to question the wisdom and political motives of the then JCR President, Kate Whittington. Should that transpire to be the case, it will be doubly embarrassing for Oriel’s Provost, Neil Mendoza—freshly seated on the red benches—both as the head of an Oxford college that is supposed to be committed to free speech and discourse, and also as the Government’s Kulturführer.

Meanwhile, a blue plaque has gone up opposite that of Rhodes in King Edward Street. It commemorates Ivy Williams (1877-1966), the first woman to be called to the English bar, whose family rented their home from Oriel in the late nineteenth century. “Oriel College is delighted”, said Lord Mendoza on the college website, “that the life and work of Ivy Williams has been recognised by the Blue Plaque Committee. Ivy Williams’ outstanding educational, campaigning and leading achievements were outstanding [sic]. The College is proud that this tribute to her has found a home on one of our buildings.”

One would think Oriel might have had enough of plaques. Its JCR Committee has recently promulgated a “Racial Awareness Guide” for the instruction of its members—aiming, among other things, to provide “an insight into Oxford’s colonial and racist history, and how we can work towards decolonising our institutions of higher education”. It can only be hoped that in due course Dr Williams is not herself deemed in any way to have fallen short of the moral standards by which all those who have gone before must, apparently, now be judged.

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