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Artillery Row

Streaming Spires

There is more to university than lectures: Lars Larundson writes from Oxford

For most of the last week of May, Oxford could have been in the Vendée. Temperatures soared under a cloudless, swift-filled sky, and the stone of the older college buildings burned honey-gold in the sun. Only the gentlest of zephyrs stirred the Isis as it slid sleepily towards the Channel, a hundred miles away. A near-silent Arcadian idyll for some, but to others a sure sign that all is far from well in Matthew Arnold’s home of lost causes and forsaken beliefs. 

That week was—or should have been—Eights Week, one of the highlights of the Oxford calendar and full of the contradictions that make up the University’s mixed-economy existence. In the Examination Schools hundreds of students should have been quietly scribbling away at Finals; hundreds more should have been on the banks of the river, making merry noise as the college rowers plied their craft with varying degrees of elegance and success. It should have been a week of black gowns and cream blazers; of ink-stained fingers and sunburned shoulders; of solitude and cacophony, each claiming its space.

The absence of students makes Oxford look like a handsome dowager, robbed of her pearls

Alas, not this year. The young people have been sent away, and Finals have followed them. The various faculties have painstakingly put together systems that strive to retain their rigour while enabling students to demonstrate their ability to the examiners, but inevitably not everyone is happy. Many have exchanged the relative comfort of airy, wood-panelled halls for cramped conditions at home; a disciplined few, all credit to them, have made a point of wearing full academic dress in the privacy of their bedrooms.

It will be interesting to see the figures, when they are released, of how many students have taken the option of eschewing exams in favour of receiving a special “deemed-to-have-deserved-honours” degree. Of the rest, most telling will be what the class-breakdown looks like—in both senses. A student writing papers in a well-appointed summerhouse in leafy Surrey will obviously have a more pleasant examination experience than one in a tower block in Bradford. In the debates that continue to surround issues of admissions and access, that will all be grist to the mill.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, has announced that there is “every intention of resuming the life of the University next term with as large a student cohort as possible and with the optimal combination of face-to-face and online teaching”. That is immensely encouraging, for despite the valiant attempts of so many to do as much teaching as possible online—to say nothing of the University’s ongoing and recently much-vaunted research programmes—the absence of the students makes Oxford look like a handsome dowager, robbed of her pearls. 

What will become of public lectures is, as yet, unclear. Cambridge has already confirmed that there will be no “face-to-face” lectures next year; other places have begun to follow suit. In one obvious way the streaming of lectures online will be a boon: students being students, they are probably more likely to access more of them at a moment of their own convenience, than to turn up in person on the morning after the night before. Its danger lurks instead on the other side of the lectern; universities will only need recorded material to be delivered once, and the precarious existence of untenured academics is fragile enough already.

Meanwhile, this year’s deafening silence on the river spoke eloquently to what fewer and fewer of today’s dons care to admit: that the education of the young is a kaleidoscopic process involving activity outside (and in some cases well beyond) their formal course of studies. Some of the loudest cheers in Eights Week are reserved for those who, having finished an afternoon paper, have hot-footed it through Christ Church Meadow to the boat house, just in time to exchange subfusc for singlet and to row in the upper divisions at the end of the day. 

We shall know that Oxford is beginning to get back to normal when the undergraduates are back in residence, when tutorial teaching has resumed, and the Bodleian Library has reopened to its readers. Full normality, however, will only return when the University Orchestra plays once again to a packed Sheldonian Theatre; when the University Dramatic Society is back on the stage at the Playhouse; when Oriel brings the High Street to a standstill as it marches its boat up from the river; and when Choral Evensong from Merton once more wafts down Magpie Lane on the evening breeze. 

Such and many others are the plump fruits of a commitment to a broad formation that sees value and intrinsic worth in the opportunities that lie outside the library and lecture hall, as well as those that remain within. Any university that comes to be regarded as no more than an academic forcing-house has surely failed in its essential task, though it may be deemed to have succeeded elsewhere and on other terms. Food for thought, perhaps, as plans continue to be made for the reopening of the tertiary-education sector in the weeks and months ahead. 

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