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Profile: Donald Russell

Tradition may be everywhere in Oxford, but I spoke to one 95-year-old tutor who has seen over 65 years of change.

Donald Russell, a 95 (almost 96) year-old tutor at St Johns, first came here as a classics student at Balliol in 1939 until being called up to service in World War two. After working for the Intelligence Corps, including Bletchley Park, he returned to finish his degree and continued as a tutor, dean, lecturer, admissions tutor and fellow at St Johns. Donald defies age by continuing his teaching and academic work at his flat in Oxford, where I met him to talk about his experiences over the years.

We began by discussing his time as an Oxford student, over 75 years ago. On first impressions, Donald described having “fear” for it being “rather intimating”. Freshers and applicants may be feeling the same, but for different reasons it seems. Donald recounted the interview process, “there were six or seven 3 hour papers with interviews in the middle of the papers, and not only subject papers”. An English essay he recalled with great distaste was simply titled “English essay 3 hours, The noble savage”, to which he had to write enough about to fill the time.

Donald recounted the interview process, “there were six or seven 3 hour papers with interviews in the middle of the papers, and not only subject papers”.

Are interviews easier now? “The whole admissions system has of course changed completely. In those days it was examinations conducted by the colleges, either for scholarships of for commoner places. They conducted the examinations. They didn’t take much notice of the certificates and A-levels and things”.

War broke out just when Donald came up to study at Oxford. He admitted it was “a little frightening” and “very dark because of the blackout”, but spoke warmly about the post-war climate. “After the war of course, everybody came back, and I suppose Oxford from 45 to 47, was a very exciting place because there were very large numbers of people who were not only the new people who had come from school but those who had done all sorts of things during the war”.  Excitement was especially created by his fellow students, “I had some very able contemporaries, and I learnt a lot from them. I think you learn as much from contemporaries as from your tutors, you know”.

As I moved the discussion on to change, Donald sensed my curiosity and asked me “Are you compelled to be in college by midnight”. I tentatively answered yes, and he went on to explain, “In those days’ college gates shut at about 9 o’clock and nobody was allowed out after 9. If you came in after 9 you would probably pay a fine”. No late library sessions then, as “after midnight it became quite an offence and you’d probably have to see the dean”.

Other aspects of his student life have become outdated over the years. “Are you expected to present yourself either at chapel or for breakfast for at least 5 days a week?” he asked. Donald was, and why? “To make sure you kept regular hours. The place was much more like a boarding school than it is now”. In Donald’s day, “there was much more of that institutional, organized day I think than there is now.”

The major shift however, has been in attitudes to teaching and research. Donald said “In my early days I regarded my teaching, and I was expected to regard it, as my main job. There has been a real shift in the balance between undergraduate education and teaching on the one hand, and graduate study and research on the other”. For evidence he cited the sheer numbers of post-graduates now in comparison to his early days when “there were very few”. As a result, Donald commented, “now the pressure on academics to write and publish is very great, and they are on the whole promoted basically on those grounds”.

“There has been a real shift in the balance between undergraduate education and teaching on the one hand, and graduate study and research on the other.”

Questioned as to whether this was a good thing, Donald took a positive line, “I think that the university is a much more excited and learned place for all these reasons”, though he noted “I hope that it doesn’t detract too much from the service you get. I think probably all is well”.

I moved the discussion onto World Rankings, given the news that The University of Oxford has recently become number one in The Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the first time. Though unsure on the methodology of the tables, Donald suggested research could be the main factor, but he also noted that “there was no doubt that, in Oxford in the 1950s or so there were a lot of weaknesses, there were far more of undergraduates who were not serious than there are now”. Asked if this meant students now are more hard-working, Donald answered “In general yes”, adding that “I think people are less confident that they well get on well if they don’t do any work.”

The composition of students has also changed over the last 65 years. Oxford University’s intake of new students this autumn will have the highest proportion of state school pupils for at least 40 years. In response, Donald actually noted that, “In my early days, before the grammar schools were removed, I had more pupils from what you would call disadvantaged backgrounds than I had later. That was one of the things, there is always controversy about grammar schools but they did afford some social mobility and it did certainly result in a lot of people coming here who otherwise wouldn’t have done”.

Commenting on the measures for increasing grammar schools, Donald said that “I’m never in favour of putting the clock back, I always thought it was a very bad thing to kill the grammar schools. But putting them back is a different story”.

Another major change that has affected student composition is the slow demise of single-sex colleges. Donald was a tutor in 1974 when integration began in the male-only colleges of Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus College, St Catherines and Wadham. Michaelmas 2016 will see the last remaining male college accept female undergraduates at St Benet’s Hall. Donald described the changes as “very important and very beneficial, though they caused pain at the time to the former female colleges”. He hopes that “we’ve now reached a stable state where one doesn’t have to select people just because they’re women”. The percentage is currently coming close to 50/50, with 6,131 male and 5,472 female undergraduates.

He hopes that “we’ve now reached a stable state where one doesn’t have to select people just because they’re women”.

Not all changes are positive however, and Donald said “one thing I regret in recent developments is that in schools like History or English literature, they’ve dropped any requirement for people to learn another language. So that not only do they lose the capacity for looking at original sources, but they lose all the enrichment that comes from trying to operate in another language”. On what should be done, Donald said “I’m against reintroduction but I would want to encourage people who do humanities to extend their linguistic skills”.

Finally discussing freedom of speech, I asked whether he had seen more activism among students. Donald replied “the political feelings ran pretty high in my young days”. Oxford has always been political he said, “we almost always had people with pretty extreme views of one kind or another”, and added that “we need to be tolerant to one another”.

Donald has certainly seen a lot of change in the last 75 years. Yet, one thing I noticed that hasn’t changed is his loyalty to Oxford and his subject. Donald continues to teach undergraduates despite retirement and has 2 new books coming out that he personally contributed to. Visiting ex-students, as old as 80 now, are a testimony to Donald’s influential hard-work. For Donald, they are just another fortunate aspect of his Oxford-life, “I’ve certainly made many friends, and that’s actually the best reward I think I’ve had”.

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