James Delingpole

Oxford is full of overindulged whiners. It wasn’t like that in my day

We were never being boring – but we knew how to be self-disciplined and rigorous

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

I was in the attic killing some Taleban on Medal of Honor when Girl interrupted and said: ‘Dad, what’s this?’ What it was was a pile of memorabilia which I’d stuffed into a plastic shopping bag on leaving university and which I’d barely looked at since.

We picked through the contents rapt with wonder. To me it seems like yesterday but this was a window to a world that no longer exists — an Oxford at least as remote from current experience as my Oxford was from the version attended 30 years earlier by all those clever grammar-school boys with their pipes and tweed suits, fresh from doing their National Service. ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘I’m living history.’

Probably the biggest change has been in communications. In my day, everything happened not via texts, phone or email — which effectively didn’t exist — but through your pigeonhole in the porter’s lodge: summons from your tutor, plaintive letters from your mum hoping you’d soon get in touch, and, most important, party invitations.

There were lots of these in my bag: from the Sunday Club to a Drunk and Disorderly Party at Oriel Square; the Hedonist Club to a Lacustrine Sunset on the Sainsbury Terrace, Worcester College; the Narcoleptics in Christ Church Cathedral Garden; the Keepers of the Plunger, ibid; the Editors of Tributary in the Fellows’ Garden, Magdalen; something ad hoc and scrappy from the legendary performance poet Micalef; etc.

Many of these events required you to wear black tie. Generally, you were expected either to bring a bottle of sparkling white wine or to pay £5 on the door, which would buy you enough cocktails or Bellinis to get so properly sick that you would probably need a ‘tactical grom’ before you retired, so as to avoid the horror of bedspin.

To give you an idea of the going rate for booze in those days, I have the menu from George’s Wine Bar, in Wheatsheaf Yard, next to Christ Church. A Brandy Alexander — which is what we quite often drank, because Anthony Blanche did — cost £1.80; a champagne cocktail (champagne, brandy, Cointreau), £2.75.

This puts into perspective the gobsmacking £21 demanded of me via a note from the secretary of the Arnold and Brackenbury Society in Balliol for a black-tie dinner. Translated into modern money that would leave little change, I suspect, from £150. And for what? The pleasure of hearing the society’s flaxen-haired president deliver a speech to the society’s mascot, a stuffed owl?

God knows how we afforded it. -Actually I do know. We didn’t have to pay tuition fees. Plus our accommodation seems to have been relatively cheap. My bill for Michaelmas term 1984 came to £321.68, including £263.70 for board and lodging and £23 for central heating. Next to this bill, I found some slips for £60 and £70 for my grant (yes, you actually got paid to be a student in those days); plus an application — completed but never sent — to Oxford City Council for a rent allowance. I never had to do paid work in vacations, let alone during term-time. Indeed, in the holidays, you were actually allowed to sign on the dole and claim unemployment benefit. I didn’t but lots of my contemporaries did.

It makes us sound like a bunch of horribly spoilt brats, which I expect we were, to a degree. There’s a lovely set of photos I have of some of us enjoying a champagne picnic, pretty girls and handsome chaps, all a bit squiffy, clearly without a care in the world — as is the way when you know without really thinking about it that the future owes you a living. The florid-faced chap in the cricket sweater, I note, did particularly well for himself.

But we did work. I remember visiting friends in Bristol and being appalled by how little they had to write. In English at Oxford we usually had to do two lengthy essays a week that required much thought, effort and background reading — or you’d be shredded mercilessly in your tutorial.

Do the kids work harder today? Almost definitely, I would have thought, because the competition is stiffer and the price of failure (when you’ve racked up so much debt and when the jobs market is so tough) higher. A contemporary of mine popped into the Bodleian Library the other day for old times’ sake and found it so packed with earnest little spods beavering away (‘It wasn’t even exam season,’ said my friend, appalled) that she couldn’t get a seat. What this doesn’t necessarily mean is that standards are higher. Since I left, education has been so dumbed down that school-leavers barely have the concentration to read a whole book, where they’ve been taught to appreciate literature only in gobbets of ‘text’, and where — especially with languages ancient or modern — the first year is spent on basics that would formerly have been covered at school.

Also, undergraduates are much more cosseted these days. Their parents — instead of being barely tolerated providers of the occasional lunch at the Elizabeth — now lurk anxiously in the wings, monitoring progress, available for comfort or rescue at the drop of a hat, as if university were the same as school. The authorities, meanwhile, now treat rancid, spotty students with the kind of fawning respect a five-star hotel manager might accord a tricky oligarch.

My Oxford would never have tolerated stuff like that Rhodes Must Fall nonsense. You were an independent adult, heir to an intellectual tradition going back to the Middle Ages, and expected to behave with the requisite self-discipline and think with the appropriate rigour — or, quite rightly, face the consequences. Occasionally, going back, I see glimmers of glories past. But only a few. Jesus, what a bunch of whiny, politically correct, joyless, overindulged, sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll-free, workaholic milksops.

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  • bufo75

    “O tempora, o mores ” –
    Cicero had the same problem !

  • Steve Challenger

    When I were a lad, we lived in a rolled up newspaper – and we were glad of it.

    • samton909

      Toffs. We lived in used toilet paper.

      • Jeffrey Vernon

        We didn’t use toilet paper. And I was kept in a cutlery drawer.

        • Father Todd Unctious

          Cutlery drawer. Luxury. There were 22 of us living in a bucket of sick .

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            We had to get our sick on hire purchase.

          • anonuk

            We used to dream of living in vomit. It would have been heaven to us.

  • jennybloggs

    Today’s yoof does seem to be very dull.

    • justejudexultionis

      Dull, and completely oblivious to the Islamic tide sweeping Europe.

      • The middle classes are not having enough children, so there is not
        enough competition to get into the top universities. Its time to talk
        about dysgenics:


      • rtj1211

        Well, if you weren’t supporting Governments of all colours that forces children to become workers in an ‘education factory’ from 5 to 18, then maybe their education syllabi would cover things of importance??

    • rtj1211

      It depends on your definition of very dull. Most I speak to are very emotionally developed. They may be students but they work a few mornings in coffee shops to help make ends meet. The vast majority are young women. None are boring ugly old frumps and if they are not attracting large numbers of young men it either means they wish to attract large numbers of young women or the men neither have eyes to see nor testosterone flowing through their veins…..

  • watzat

    By 1984 student activism had ended – suddenly. At my redbrick, 1980 saw the admission of its very last punk. 1981-82 saw instead the entrance of soberly dressed students – grey slacks, short neat haircuts.The cold wind of Thatcherite unemployment had blown first on parents who berated their kids about reduced employment prospects and the desperate need to comform. A social revolution had occurred in just 3 years. Who said that the economic base determined the cultural super-structure? No student post 1982 if he or her had any sense.

    Oxford today is a different matter. For an overseas student the extraction of an apology or cringe in a modish cause is a perfect billboard and springboard for a political career back home.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Rubbish. 1984/5 was the year of the Miner’s strike and CND’s biggest Hyde Park rally. I should know I was at both and still a student.

  • plainsdrifter

    Blame the parents, dear boy.

  • 100

    The problem is the change in demographics coupled with entrance based on diversity quotas rather than good old fashioned merit. Its a problem being faced by all universities They are full of underachievers that really shouldn’t be there and who’s ambitions in life would be better suited joining trade union and working in a manual vocation.

    • gunnerbear

      Better find them the jobs that lead to careers then, if you don’t want people you consider not worthy to be at Uni……

    • Father Todd Unctious

      What change in demographics? The 1965 cohort numbered 950,000. 9% of whom went to further education, free.
      The 1997 cohort numbered just 720,000. 42% of whom are in higher education paying £27,000 minimum.

    • RightThinkingMan

      I can see that uni was waster on you. What manual job do you do?

      • 100

        I have an opinion on the article and a right to express it.
        Comments are for that purpose. if you have an opinion you too are free to write your comments,
        If you disagree with me then explain your opinion and make an intelligible comment. You do yourself no favours by trolling my comment with a quip insult without any opinion of your own.
        This suggests that rather than contributing to the debate your preference is to shut down anything you diasagree with
        Thats classic behaviour of trolls..
        I suggest that you might be the one lacking a decent education.

        • RightThinkingMan

          Stop whining. What a disgusting comment to make about diversity quotas. As for me lacking a decent educations I guess if graduating from Oxbridge is lacking a decent education, then you are right. If you did make it uni, am sure you only got in for th thick white man quota.

          • Hugh Jeego

            Where’s Oxbridge?
            Never met an Oxford or Cambridge graduate who claimed to have graduated from” Oxbridge”. Here in Oxford they’re very particular about that, and I imagine they are in Cambridge too.

          • RightThinkingMan

            Spoken like a true Oxbridge reject that you are. Go back to your silly little middle mgmt job.

          • Hugh Jeego

            Ooh, your barbed insults sting so!
            You really do have a chip on your shoulder over Oxford and Cambridge. Are you a bedder, or a scout?

          • RightThinkingMan

            My god – bedder or scout – when did you go to Oxbridge? The 1850s? What on earth are you talking about?

          • Hugh Jeego

            You sad little man. If only you knew how badly you’ve failed.

          • RightThinkingMan

            That’s what all the Oxbridge rejects say!

        • RightThinkingMan

          What drivel. The nasty bigotry on these boards against blacks and Muslims shows the underbelly of the Spectator “reader’.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    University today is more like school. Lessons and lectures are more strict, there is impart even mandatory “homework” to do and the general level by the students seems lower. Somehow the school grades seem not to reflect someones talents anymore. Another thing might be the generation of teachers, 30 years ago the professors had war experience, which means, they had to learn to be tough and self-sufficient and implicitly passed that on in their lectures. Today we have peace and live in a crazy consumer world, which takes away every edge there might be. No-one knows anymore the difference between good times and bad ones. It’s all a bit ambivalent.

    But as I believe the most important change is, that students are much younger. At least in Germany the age dropped by more than 2 years in the past 30 years. That is because the military service is gone and some states (education is organized on state-level) stripped a year from school. I guess this should be more or less comparable in Britain.

    Considering those two years of a young person, who has a conscience life since about age 6 (schooling age), that means, an 18 year old first semester has 12 years of life memory, whereas back then 20 year olds had 15 years of experience. Todays students simply are 20% behind in their development. I can hardly believe, this has no influence on the level refinement of their personal priorities.

    • gunnerbear

      “Lessons and lectures are more strict, there is impart even mandatory “homework” to do….” Because the students are now paying to be at Uni and so won’t tolerate tiny amounts of ‘contact hours’ or off the cuff lectures…….the students are paying and so rightly demand more….

      • Ingmar Blessing

        There still are a lot of tuition free universities, but the trend to control and mandate is emerging everywhere. This indicates, that there has been a shift on the teaching and administrative side.

        • Jeffrey Vernon

          In Britain, all undergraduate degrees cost a minimum of £9000 a year. When fees were introduced, the UK government set up what we call a ‘quango’ – an agency that makes up its own code of conduct. This is the QAA, and it has the power to recognise or de-recognise degree courses. One of the QAA requirements is more auditing and monitoring of staff and student behaviour. At the same time, non-EU students in Britain have to attend 80% of the time, to make sure they are ‘legitimate’; the attendance rule has been extended to all the home students as well. Around 40% of 18 year-olds now do a degree, and they can’t all cope with exams – many would fail if they did not hand in their homework for credit.

          • Ingmar Blessing

            thx for the info. I’m only familiar with the for free German undergraduate system, which has been changed to school for grown-ups who need a schedule for orientation. Since before it was oriented for “adults who can take care for themselves” my (and other critics of the new system) believe this needed to be done because the students are increasingly younger.

            If a degree costs so much I wonder why so many go there. I’d never do that without a scholarship for being talented or parents with deep pockets.

            A prior job training is much better in that case, since you end up with a degree too, you earn money in that time and at the end – if you feel like it – you can ask your boss if you can have a scholarship. Some friends did it that way in Germany and they were well off at the end.

            I guess, about half of those 40% shouldn’t be at university. Is there a proper pre-selection of the students? Or are they doing it the nasty way: You pay first, then realize, you made a mistake and then lost one year of your life and 3000 Pounds?

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            On paper, all the students who go to a British university qualify by taking school-leavers’ exams. Until approximately 15 years ago, this meant A levels. There have been two developments in that time; A levels became ‘modular’ so that students could pass them, or improve their grades, by repeating the exam for some or all of the modules. Clearly, it is easier to get a high grade by this method. Even the top universities complain about the quality of students. Second, a rival, vocational qualification called BTEC was introduced. About one-quarter of applicants to university now have BTEC or other ‘access’ qualifications. These are a lot easier, and the high pass rates make the school results look more impressive. Some universities will not accept BTEC/Access, at least for some of their degrees, but other unis recruit a high proportion of their students that way. The government has set up a loan scheme – you pay back your £27,000 debt after your earnings reach a threshold. Work/study schemes are very rare here – a few companies, and the army, will sponsor a student, but this is a minor route.

          • Ingmar Blessing

            “Work/study schemes are very rare here…”

            That’s a pity. In Germany it’s quite a common way for corporations to upgrade their employees. Especially mid-sized corporations use it extensively. Usually the students finished a job training at a corporation and then study full time 2/3 of the year and 1/3 they work for the salary before and at the end they get a big promotion.

            I’d say about 15% of a year pursues that path. For both sides it comes with a lot of security. The employee has his job and doesn’t have to care about debt, but only the performance and the employer knows the student and his strengths well.

          • That is true in England, but in the other three countries that make up the UK, universities are still free.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            Is this always true? English students pay to attend Scottish or Welsh universities; and Welsh and Irish unis charge their own students, though I think they get a reduction.

          • Yeah, you’re right about Wales and NI, who do charge their own students something, but a lot less than the English pay.

            Scotland is still completely free, and to take advantage of that you have to be resident in the country for three years. So let your kids do their GCSEs in England, then pack ’em off here for their Highers. A year out afterwards, working in a bar or something, and then Bob’s your uncle for university.

    • ohforheavensake

      “Lessons are more strict, and there is in part even mandatory homework.”

      Nope: they’re still much the same as they were. I’m guessing that this means you didn’t do your mandatory homework- which makes you a bad student. Oh, and by the way: students are the same age as they’ve always been. It’s just that you’ve got older, and you’ve forgotten what it was like.

    • Father Todd Unctious

      Patently wrong. Many students now retake A levels and/or take a gap year. There are three times as many Postgrads as 20 years agoand far more foreign students. Students are on average much older.

    • rtj1211

      That certainly wasn’t true in the uK 30 years ago: the vast, vast majority of students starting at University were 18.

  • ohforheavensake

    Oxford full of overindulged whiners, says overindulged whiner.

    • RightThinkingMan

      Well said

  • Sean L

    Most universities are now grammar schools, some are secondary moderns. FE Colleges are secondary moderns but also provide the training and skills that in previous generations were acquired on the job as an apprentice, where you also learnt about life: earning your own money, working alongside older men, you had no choice. The extension of childhood corellates directly with the expansion of the educational bureaucracy or Blob, as it’s aptly termed, churning out politically indoctrinated consumerist fodder.

  • anonuk
  • You should have been a Ruskin man, ‘cos we had it made. Being mature students we got the age addition grant on top of the regular kind. Not only that, but our grants were paid by central government, not the local authority. That meant that after we had taken our diplomas at Ruskin – and spent two years catting around Oxford – we could go on to do a full degree with a full grant from the LEA – and that came with the age addition top-up as well! Life was great, wasn’t it?

  • Michael H Kenyon

    You try being a modern academic: 35 years ago they were drinking at lunchtime, doing derisory lectures, and fraternising inappropriately with students; those in their mid-50s had a relaxed intellectual life as they cruised forward to retirement. Now one is expected to mooch for unobtainable grants and produce work with “impact” which has the effect not of upping standards, but wasting creative time whilst business studies students advise you how to give lectures with bullet points. Reading and attending seminars? Hah: I wish. There are also many gautleiters to ensure there is no overt dissent, and vice-chancellors come on like a mix of Donald Trump and Alan Sugar. There is an exception, though: some universities seem to get away with conferences on “The Pet Shop Boys” or some other critical theory nonsense, despite it not being grant-funded or of intellectual and practical impact, as PC trumps all.

  • RightThinkingMan

    What total drivel! In my day – we were campaigning for the release of Mandela. But of course back then he was a terrorist and the ANC were terrorist organisation

  • rtj1211

    There were whingers and whiners at both Oxford and Cambridge 30 years ago, they just whinged and whined about different things.

    There were lefties who made an interminable racket outside the Cambridge Union whenever some rather right wing ‘extremist’ came to speak (when Michael Heseltine was described as one of those, the case that they were whingers and whiners was made).

    Granted I can’t imagine the extremely non-PC rag week joke mag being on sale any more.

    But there were lefties with causes trying to get elected to student union committees, to be President of the JCR, just as there were right wing hard-drinking hooray henrys who thought anyone who didn’t go to an extremely posh public school and could trace their lineage back to about 1500 was intrinsically inferior and not worthy of further attention…..

    The only thing that changes is the subjects of sensitivity. You still had ‘wimmin’s issues’ like the camp at Greenham Common, which many students went along to support at weekends. You had apartheid in South Africa instead of Donald Trump. You had the miners’ strike instead of the junior doctors’ strike.

    MI5 and MI6 were, as ever, sniffing around both places, both for recruits, but also to draw up lists of ‘undesirables’. They had every bit as much contempt for privacy and keeping out of other people’s business back then as they do now, although the technology at their fingertips is rather more sophisticated.

    Arts students 30 years ago only had about 6 lectures a week and the odd tutorial, leaving most of their time free for rowing, rugby, music or any other number of ‘extracurricular activities’. Then, as now, medics, scientists and engineers had to put in hard work and were labelled sneeringly by arts students as ‘boring’, only to be described 20 years later as ‘lazy’. The Arts students were undoubtedly sponging off the tax payer 30 years ago, living the life of Riley for 3 years. Strange that most of them became ardent Tories with a hatred for, you guessed it, sponging young people.

    I wonder if Mr Delingpole actually studied what the real student population was like back then, rather than equating himself as ‘typical’?

  • Sarka

    Yup…tallies with my experience (undergroid at Oxford in the mid seventies, then postgrad there for some further years).
    We were horribly privileged in many ways…and silly with it… but many who moan and rage about our privilege would have been horrified by the amount of bloody academic work we had to do…(In my case – history – three 8-10 page essays based on independent reading in the library (when we weren’t too hungover) every two weeks, and tutors ready to pounce and kill with barbed comments if the work was unforthcoming or pathetic) and by how little we thought we had a right to protection from views of said tutors, or anything else that went wrong.

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      I was recently forbidden by the external examiner to hold weekly tutorials with students reading out their essays; ‘overassessment’, she called it. I told her that I wasn’t assessing them – the work would not receive credit for the course grade. But this was even worse in her view – I expected the poor creatures to WORK for NOTHING? Cruel and unusual punishment.

  • RightThinkingMan

    So says the white middle dimwit who is Oxbridge reject! ha! what a loser! I love this blog full of nasty white middle male losers who cant cope with ethnics going to Oxbridge and getting better jobs than them. Of course, the nasty Muslim hating on these blogs is fine. Not the smartest knife in the set!

  • HHGeek

    Delingpole: “In English at Oxford we usually had to do two lengthy essays a week”
    Sarka’s comment: “In my case – history – three 8-10 page essays based on independent reading in the library (when we weren’t too hungover) every two weeks”

    Out of interest, how much work had to be turned in by the scientists, mathematicians, & engineers? Certainly both of my undergrad experiences (BEng / BSc) were always spectacularly more demanding of time than the BA cohorts around me. I’d be curious to know if Oxbridge was / is the same.