Master's Blog

John Humphrys came (with 200 or so in the chapel) to talk about his career, trends in broadcasting, and a little about the state of British politics. This was a joint event with the Oxford University Media Society. The audience separated itself: the more mature (sic) largely at the front, and students, for the most part, at the back, but there were plenty of them and they were keen to ask questions.  

We played in some clips of John re-visiting Aberfan, from where he had reported very early in his career on the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip into the local primary school; from South Africa (where had been the BBC Correspondent); and an interview he had done last year, very shortly after Grenfell, with Sajid Javid, about the catastrophic cladding.

John left school in South Wales with a few O Levels and worked his way up in a way that he felt would now be almost impossible. The industry has changed – and is graduate-based – and something has been lost as a result. (I rather agree with this.) He was very moving, and indeed modest, both about Aberfan ("It was impossible to report it poorly. Anyone could have done it"), and Nelson Mandela’s election, where John had been in the polling queues as black South Africans cast their vote for the first time. This led to a reflection on the role of the reporter, as opposed to presenter or interviewer, and the view that reporters and reporting were the cornerstone of any journalistic enterprise and insufficiently recognised (with a particular mention for the great Lyse Doucet).

We took some time exploring his role as the longest serving and senior Today presenter. Were so many politicians right to be so defensive, or at least so bland? John’s key answer revolved around the idea that he was trying to have an informed conversation with them about their policies and decisions, and that he was not trying to make then suffer. If they had good enough arguments they would be aired and public understanding would grow. I happen to know that John takes not only his work seriously, but is resolutely interested in democracy as a whole, and absolutely understands the legitimacy that accrues to elected politicians. 

We talked, but not endlessly, about Brexit. John did not agree with the estimable Robert Peston’s view about BBC coverage during the referendum in 2016, and I think John is right. 

There were questions about the BBC gender pay issue ("There should  unquestionably be equal pay for equal work"), and about Trump, social media, and the quality of contemporary politicians.

He was as he is: engaged, coiled, riveting and committed. It was wonderful that he came

University Challenge: a collision

by Mark Damazer on Oct 4, 2018

On Monday night, at about 7.30, around 150 of us gathered in the marquee in Linton Quad for the annual Freshers’ dinner, having already sampled the other temporary marquee at the back of the college for a pre-dinner drink and chat.

This is one of the most important social events of the year, which brings together tutors, students and senior administrative staff. The food is terrific and the hubbub constant. But, of course, there are multiple individual responses to what is going on in the room. Some are nervous and apprehensive, and some very excited.

This year the fates decreed that the meal would take place at the same time as the transmission of the University Challenge match between St Peter’s and Pembroke, Cambridge. The match was recorded many months ago, as is always the case with the whole series, but everybody involved in the production is sworn to secrecy, and so the result was not known in advance, although (confession) I had an intimation (sic). The non-Freshers turned up to watch live in the JCR, and there was a second showing at 22.00 for the Freshers. The match thus became a suitably communal occasion.

It was, as we all now know, a triumph. It was also deceptive. The St Peter’s team was made up of two graduates, James Hodgson (Statistics) and Nick Williford (History), and two undergraduates: Laura Cooper (a biologist, who has just finished her first year) and Sebastian Braddock (an historian, who has just graduated). The strategy, evidently, was to start slowly and generate some narrative excitement by allowing Pembroke to answer a few questions early on. Thereafter, it was a pulverising performance, and it ended in a walloping triumph by 225 to 50.

There were only a few blips along the way. Our recently-retired Fellow in German, Kevin Hilliard, would have been sad that we did not get the answer right to the Georg Büchner question (Danton); Shakespeare was not a strong suit (though I thought the questions very difficult); and London Bridge is Falling Down was a music near-miss. But there were multiple moments of general knowledge brilliance: on the nervous system, on Ishiguro novels, on Antimony, and much else. At one point, Laura Cooper was fabulously running away with it all, but everybody in the team had a good night. 

It was all very heartening and brought back fond memories of the team a few years back that got to the semi-finals, led by Gabriel Trueblood.

(And here is a link to a Radio 4 programme about University Challenge, from a few years back, which I presented).

Oxford and admissions

by Mark Damazer on May 25, 2018

The University and the colleges have released a welter of statistics about undergraduate admissions, a subject of understandable public interest, college and university interest, and personal interest. (I was for two years Chair of the University’s Admissions Policy Committee.) 

I have written about this on the blog before, and referred to it in an occasional article. The subject arouses passion, recrimination, finger-pointing, and what might loosely be termed political rhetoric. The subject has toxic elements.

Why? In part, because Britain is unusual in that a small number of universities (in England, above all,  Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial) are thought to be particularly desirable, despite the fact that there are many good universities throughout the UK, and that, for some people, some other places are likely to be a better fit, largely because they offer courses that may be more suitable than the ones we offer here.

Oxford, for instance, does not offer Veterinary Science or Architecture at all, and its Modern Languages degrees require a passion for literature, as well as the ability to speak and write in another language. So, if you want to study French and Business, then there are other institutions that might suit better, no matter the academic excellence of French at Oxford. And so on.

For some, getting to Oxbridge is a target that they have set for themselves, or that their parents or teachers have set for them. Getting a place is thus a hurdle knocked over, and one to add to the GCSE and A levels (or IB, or whatever), which have already been tackled and surmounted. There is nothing wrong with that. But a place here is not an end, it is a means to an end – the point being, to come here and study seriously while enjoying all the other things that a decent university can provide.

For some, the attraction will be the physical beauty of the place – a medley of architectural styles dating back a long way, and a city that is big enough to have something of a life beyond the University, but small enough to get around very easily.

But, of course, it is in part because the teaching method here promises something different to most other universities, not merely in the UK, but anywhere. The tutorial system provides very small-group teaching, often with very senior academics, and almost always with highly motivated teachers, whose efforts look to bring the best out of every student and to provide a great deal of intensive educational contact. The nature of the tutorial system will differ from subject to subject, as well as from college to college, and it is sometimes stretched, but it is still functioning.

In any event, although the Ivy League universities in the USA have lustre and prestige, there is a wide range of other American colleges/universities with excellent reputations, and it seems to matter less there than it does here where precisely you end up at age 18.

The attractiveness of Oxbridge is not something that Oxbridge should be blamed for. Doubtless, there is some snobbery afoot, and some unnecessary dismissiveness of great places elsewhere, but Oxbridge has strong intrinsic virtues: talent, resources, wonderful libraries and labs, the tutorial system, multiple nationalities, aesthetic wonder. And so on.

So a lot of people want to come every year as undergraduates: about 20,000 for fewer than 3,500 places. It is a competitive business, and very hard choices are made by people trying hard to get it right, based purely on every applicant’s academic potential and merit. Nobody gets a place here simply because of money or sporting prowess. That is not, by the by, the case in America.

Oxford has been trying hard for quite a while (I’d guess 20 years or so) to attract more of the ablest students, no matter their background. St Peter’s was among the earliest to employ an outreach officer, and we host scores of events every year, focusing very hard on schools without a track record of sending tens of students each year to Oxbridge. We visit schools, too, and sometimes I am pretty sure we will be generating greater interest in Oxford than would otherwise have been the case, but the applications are sometimes for other colleges. If you want to enjoy a lake, then Worcester is the college. If you want an ancient library, then Magdalen. But it is right that we do these things for the good of all, as well as for St Peter’s.

The figures released today are complex. They include the State vs Independent figure so beloved of the media. It is simple to understand, if crude. This coming October, St Peter’s will probably have about 60% of its UK intake from state schools. The wider world normally assumes an Oxford college probably has not more than half this number. There are other indicators. A Sutton Trust study suggested a few years back that we had a good record in admitting students from less privileged backgrounds, once they applied here. But we know that by some measures we are not top of the class. 

What would help? For Oxford as a whole, we need more parents and teachers to give us a chance, and we need to keep talking to them. Some of the stuff written about this place is pre-manufactured to suit some particular aspects of the mythology. A large number of able students need more encouragement. We need to be surer than we sometimes are about which of the things we do are working well (and less well). I would like more accommodation at St Peter’s to attract even better students than we have, and I know that some from poorer backgrounds fret, in advance, about living outside the college for a year (although they mostly enjoy the experience, once they have done it).
We are now working with two other colleges (Corpus and Balliol) in a loose confederation to try and get some economies of scale in what we do. That should ensure we meet more eyeballs and eardrums. We have The Schools Ambassador programme, paid for by a charity. We will keep at it.