Master's Blog

Haggis takes over the hall

by Mark Damazer on Jan 31, 2017

Here is a low-tech slice of Burns Night in Hall – packed as usual – but in recent years spectacularly embellished by the performance of Dr Marina MacKay, Official Fellow in English, expert on modern British literature, Gaelic speaker and supreme exponent of ‘Address to a Haggis’. The knife-wielding moment is very fine.

The piper piped in the haggis, the choir gave us a Robbie Burns medley, the lads toasted the lassies and the lassies toasted the  lads, by now fuelled with a small tot of whisky (and only a small tot). The haggis was consumed and the noise in the hall, with its unforgiving acoustic, rose, but on a bitterly cold night we prospered. 

Oxford: opportunity and disadvantage

by Mark Damazer on Jan 17, 2017

It is some time since I have written about Oxford and ‘access’, the word most commonly used to describe Oxford’s record (and indeed its efforts) in admitting undergraduates from underprivileged backgrounds (a broad term that encompasses disadvantage derived from one or all of schooling, poverty, ethnicity or disability).

Over the next few weeks, I will write about the subject on a number of occasions, in part because I am head of the University’s admissions Policy Committee (ADCOM – we like acronyms here), and we are soon likely to recommend quite a number of changes in the way Oxford organises its efforts to attract the broadest range of students. We do not start from a position of iniquity or indifference. The caricature of detached indifference and passivity when thinking about social mobility is both wrong and corrosive.

I am also drawn to write because a) we have come to the end of this year’s ‘offer season’, when students find out whether or not they have been offered a place (subject to getting the grades) and b) because so much of what is written is both wrong and damaging – damaging in that the ‘guff’ adds to the difficulty of persuading bright 17-year-olds, their parents and their teachers that they should try Oxford.

The Guardian on Saturday has this story, and although it is unquestionably true that the prominent Labour politician David Lammy criticised Oxford in one particular regard, and largely in good humour, The Guardian’s description of the event is significantly inaccurate. It was, in fact, a very engaging and constructive occasion with almost all the Oxford contributions managing both to advertise what is good about how we think and act, while suggesting that we need to do more and make our efforts more effective. Which is right.

Oxford does a lot to try to ensure that the best students with talent and potential apply and get a place, no matter where they come from. The bursary scheme is probably the most generous in the country, and over £5 million a year is spent on hosting events, visiting schools, organising school trips to Oxford, and much, much else. St Peter’s, like many other colleges, has a dedicated Outreach and Access Officer, and we organise a great many events of different kinds to try to de-mythologise Oxford and provide focused encouragement.

So to get started here are few facts... 

10% of Oxford students come from homes where household income is less than £16,000. For what it’s worth, more or less 60% come from state schools. I say ‘for what it’s worth’ because the state school figure is not one that Oxford has as a target with its regulator OFFA, because it is crude. Hills Road Sixth Form College, a great school in Cambridge with what might be called, with some understatement, an attractive catchment area, sends large clumps of students to Oxbridge each year – far more than almost all independent schools. A significant minority of Oxbridge students from independent schools were on bursaries, and there are many other complexities. 

But Oxford has not done a great job in persuading people that the state vs. independent metric is too simple, and we are lumbered with it. In my experience, it is very unusual to find anyone outside Higher Education who knows the true figure. Most people, and that includes quite a large number of teachers, think the state school Oxford figure is much lower – sometimes by an almost hilarious amount.

But, yes, there is more to do. We do not get as many ‘under-privileged’ (and forgive the idiom) students with the appropriate grades applying as we would like. We get many, but we would like more. The admissions system involves huge amounts of hard work and reflection – often-agonised reflection, by tutors – and they make their judgments with integrity. But the colleges’ combined outreach efforts are not always mapped out or executed in a way that makes sense of the problem, and we might do more to ensure we have the chance of making the most informed decisions. 

That is enough for now – but I will come back to all of this.

Mary Beard: public life, trolling and Romans

by Mark Damazer on Nov 9, 2016

Last Friday, Professor Mary Beard came to St Peter's, courtesy of a conversation with the JCR President about year ago. I asked her who the JCR would have on a list of favourite speakers and they plumped for Mary. So no surprise that we were full.
 
She talked about Trump (who I shall now call President-elect Trump, but who, all of six days ago, was a long, long shot) and democracy. Democracy, she asserted (highly correctly in my view) is not defined by elections alone. What matters, and a lot, is knowledge and the quality of public debate. Aristophanes and Thucydides were called into action for this early section of the talk. George Orwell had much to say about this topic too, with praise heaped on the House of Lords for the quality of its debates (participants often had knowledge). I jotted down this phrase: "The biggest crime is to make things simple (when they were not simple)."  Yes – and that, of course begged further thoughts about President-elect Trump (I am just getting used to the idea) in the question and answer session that followed.

As to public debate, there was too much of a danger of everyone preaching to the converted. It was no good if liberals only spoke to Guardian readers, and so on. Radio 4 was mentioned (quite a lot) with deserved praise for More or Less.

There were some gripping moments when she talked about how she had added a public role as a debater and interpreter of current affairs to her primary role as a Professor of Classics, and she made it clear that the Classics role was the one that truly defined her. She had been spotted by a Controller of BBC 2 who took Mary up on her complaint that too many series were being presented by middle-aged frumpy men. So she was offered programmes (in her words) "as a middle-aged frumpy woman". They were spectacularly successful – my words, not hers.

There was a riveting section about the abuse she has endured, from people who have threatened to cut her head off and from journalists (including in quality papers) who had written about her in a way that might generously be described as cheap.
 
And she spoke about how in her early career she had not found her voice and had been quiet in seminars until she began to speak up. Interestingly, she could not work out quite how that change arrived. It preceded by many years the arrival of a public profile.

The audience was spellbound. At the end, several gathered around her, not merely to have a book signed but to ask for advice – in one case from a student who wanted an answer to an essay question about Cicero. Mary gave her a concise answer. I doubt the student will reveal this minor act of chutzpah in her tutorial.