by Domnhall Macdonald
You would be forgiven for thinking, when your post-bop hangover is disturbed on Sunday morning by the ringing of hundreds of church bells across Oxford, that we are living in a Christian city. You would be forgiven for thinking that Christianity was alive and kicking when hearing your college choir rehearse in the chapel, when walking past one of Oxford’s many beautiful churches on the way to lectures, or even when ignoring those incessant facebook invites to text-a-toastie.
But Christianity, in Oxford and the UK today, is a minority pursuit. A brief look at local authority data from the 2011 census revealed 48% of the Oxford city population consider themselves to be Christian and 33.1% to be of no religion (with Muslims making up the next-largest group at 6.8%). These figures are well below the national averages of 59.3% Christian and 25.1% non-religious.
Fair enough, Christians do constitute the largest group. But the vast majority of them are nominal Christians, identifying so for cultural reasons, not religious ones. In a 2011 YouGov poll conducted at the same time as the census, people were asked when was the last time they attended of worship for religious reasons (as opposed to family or tourist reasons). 63% of people in England and Wales hadn’t attended in the last year and only 9% of people had bothered attended a place of worship within the last week! Admittedly, this poll was commissioned by the British Humanist Association, but even so, the 1 in 10 churchgoing figure is in broad agreement with all the other polls I found online. Because the Fourth Commandment calls on Christians to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” churchgoing for prayer, scripture and sacraments is how our society defines a practising Christian.
I grew up in a place where everyone went to Church, and one particular kind of – Catholic – church at that. You could count the number of Protestants on one hand, and the number of anything else on no hands at all. I know what living Christianity looks like. And I know its problems. Where no one can come out as gay for fear for societal retribution, where shops don’t sell contraception, where saying you are an atheist brings shame on the family, and, in my case, risks estrangement.
As someone who is supposed to uphold an evidence-based way of life, it would be silly of me to say Christianity is completely dead in Oxford. But meaningful Christian faith is not part of the daily life of the vast majority of its citizens. Within our colleges, the Christian Union is a society, a hobby, like any other. Just as some eccentric individuals think getting up at 5am to row is the best start of the day, so do some students think going to Church on a Sunday is the best use of their time.
Christianity is just one of many religions in this city. I personally know Muslims, and Hindus, and Jews and Quakers. There is now even an atheist Church in the form of Oxford Sunday Assembly! The City of the Dreaming Spires was christened so because of its many churches. But Christianity is dying here, today in the 21st century. And perhaps it wouldn’t be too cheeky of me to venture that it’s a healthier Christianity for it. Better 10% of the city and our colleges are truly-believing Christians who actually get something out of going to Church, rather than 100% who go out of a sense of duty and sin.
by Joshua Peppiatt
I came up to Oxford two years ago unsure of myself and unsure of my faith. I was apprehensive: would there be any other Christians in this famous city of academia, home to Dawkins and Hitchens? Would my medical studies create doubts and weaken my convictions? Oxford of course has a famous history of Christianity. I was aware of our motto: Dominus Illuminatio Mea – The Lord is my light. I knew of the great Christians to have passed through our institution. But surely in 21st century Oxford, Christianity is dead?
Well, I soon found out how wrong I was. By the end of Freshers’ week I had met Christians in college who weren’t embarrassed about Jesus; in fact they loved speaking about him. Christianity wasn’t a hobby or something they did because of parental pressure, but was what they were most passionate about. They were part of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU), a group of students from every college who want to give other students the chance to hear the message of Jesus.
I was immediately struck by the size and activity of the OICCU: there are hundreds of active members who give up a substantial part of their time in all that goes on. There are weekly Friday Lunchtime Talks addressing common objections to Christianity, last term attended by 150-200 people, many of whom aren’t Christians. A week of talks in 4th week of Hilary term each year sees thousands of students come to find out more about Jesus. Most importantly, each day students talk with their Christian friends about life’s big questions; I’ve been delighted to see two close friends in Oxford come to personally know Jesus this way.
You might also be surprised to know that there are many vibrant churches in Oxford full of all sorts of ages, races and backgrounds. I’ve taken great encouragement from being part of a local church, St. Ebbes, which not only is a place where I am cared for, but has challenged me to think seriously about whether Christianity makes sense and examine who the historical Jesus was.
You may be thinking this has no relevance to you. But what if I said Christianity is alive in Oxford today because Jesus is alive? I’d like to challenge you that Jesus, the historical man that lived and died, doesn’t leave you the option to ignoring him or dismissing him as just a good teacher. He makes outrageous claims, saying that he is not just the only way to know God, but also that he is God himself! C. S Lewis, the famous fellow of Magdalen, after looking into it himself, said: ‘We are faced then with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what he said, or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that he was neither a lunatic nor a fiend; and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that he is God.’ What do you make of that?
Socrates said that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ Use your time here to examine the claims of Christianity: that there is a God who you can know, and who loves you so much that he died for you. Where can you start? Talk to a Christian friend, ask them your questions. Come to the weekly Friday Lunchtime Talk or the Carol Service in the Sheldonian Theatre near the end of term. Christianity isn’t only alive in Oxford, it’s thriving, and it’s worth investigating too.
For: Michael Scott
First of all, let’s be honest here; state schools are to blame for indoctrinating their students into thinking that Oxbridge is beyond their intellectual ability. These students aren’t missing out because the university isn’t doing its best to reach out to them; they’re missing out because they wouldn’t dream of applying in the first place, such is the vitriol and the spite with which Heads of Sixth Form spat the words ‘Cambridge’ and ‘Oxford’. This greatly saddens me. The university has probably missed out on some of the greatest minds of this generation purely because those that that surrounded and influenced those people in their adolescence perceived it as an academic institution made only for the rich. The message was loud and clear: Oxford isn’t for someone like you. Yet there are much wealthier students, lucky enough to have the privilege of a wonderful, personalised education who are positively encouraged to apply. A few schools even insist upon it!
Let’s be honest, we – the ones who made it – are all roughly on the same level in terms of aptitude. There’s the odd genius, yes, but he or she is above what education can do. For the rest of us, money is the only difference, and it makes me wonder just how many equally bright young men and women missed out on such a brilliant opportunity. Oxford should attempt to tackle this fundamental flaw in society and for my money it is, but it shouldn’t be alone in carrying this responsibility.
Oxford has, for some time now, promised only to root out the brightest and the best, regardless of income, social background or ethnicity. It still has some way to go, to be sure, but that shouldn’t mean it’s efforts up to now are unsatisfactory. Some of us may insist upon perfection, but let’s be reasonable here; Oxford isn’t doing a crap job when it comes to reaching out to prospective students. Far from it! Colleges have been running outreach programmes in local areas for years now, and very successful they are too. I myself was lucky enough to attend an outreach event back in 2010 near Liverpool. It taught me a lot about Oxbridge (let’s face, both shades of blue are in this one together!) and definitely provided me with some crucial signposts on the road to applying and getting a place. UNIQ Summer Schools gives lower sixth form students from states schools a chance to find out what’s unique about an Oxford education, with the admission criteria emphasising the value placed on applications from those who come from underrepresented demographics. At the heart of all of Oxford’s outreach work are Oxford students. We need to give credit to those who run these programs that they’ve placed its biggest asset front and centre because it’s clear that personal conversation is going to be the best way to connect with the 16 year-old and make them dream again!
There is an argument that points at the ratio of private school to state school students that are actually getting into Oxford and says “If the access schemes are so successful, how come those numbers are still so disproportionately skewed?” The fact that the make-up of the university’s undergraduate intake doesn’t match that of their national peer-group is tragic. But it’s obviously not just down to access. I’ve already tried to highlight how much Oxford is doing to get the word out on the street; Oxford is for you! Well, Oxford is for them, but only if they get the grades.
Here’s the real reason we’re not seeing the fruits of the university’s labour. There’s a concrete fact of life: if you don’t get your A*s you won’t get in. And a lot of them don’t get their grades. Why? Their schools are letting them down. They’re as bright as those who make, but if you’re not taught well you won’t pass the exam. It’s true for you too and you know it. So there it is. The double whammy. You won’t get in. You can’t get in. That’s the position our country’s schools are putting 16 year olds in today and nothing Oxford is going to do is ever going to stop that. Oxford University’s attempts to widen access are satisfactory. The reason they still appear to be having such a small effect is the incompetency of our country’s state schools. Let’s not pan Oxford when nothing it can do is going to change that simple fact!
Against: Maryam Ahmed
Thousands of 18-year-olds across the country are gearing up to apply to Oxford, and of course, with this annual flurry comes the annual debate. Is the Oxford demographic skewed in favour of students from wealthy, middle class backgrounds? The answer is a resounding yes; whilst only ~7% of children in the UK are privately educated, they make up a hugely disproportionate 42.5% of Oxford’s undergraduate population. Could the University do more to counter this? Er, yes-ish.
To be blunt, the blame for this skewness rests squarely on the shoulders of the state education sector. Oxford simply receives more applications from the private sector, and our comprehensives, academies, and free schools need to up their game. But despite this, branding Oxford’s access initiatives as ‘satisfactory’ is unhelpful and not at all in the spirit of things. ‘Satisfactory’ is a word befitting an online review of a slightly grotty B&B, not the world’s greatest University. Oxonians don’t do mediocrity or complacency, so forget satisfactory; why should our drive to widen access be anything less than outstanding?
The University may run hundreds of access events per year (and the efforts of Access & Admissions staff across Oxford are nothing short of Herculean) but their format could be improved on. As it stands, school groups are generally brought in for day long visits rather than residentials, with a focus on 14-18 year olds. That’s all well and good, and these events are useful- but the thing is, gifted kids aren’t stupid. They know they ought to be aiming high. They know Oxford doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of socio-economic background. But they also know that the endemic failure of state schools to nurture and cater for academically gifted children makes it highly unlikely that they will ever be in a position to apply to Oxford.
Bringing school groups in for isolated day trips, with little continuation or follow up, will always have limited efficacy- we may as well just send the poor things a photo of the Rad Cam captioned: “Looks good, eh? Pity your school is so crap. Good luck!” What’s needed is consistency and a greater focus on long term initiatives. The University must identify potential applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds as early as possible- Year 7 rather than Year 11- and bring them to Oxford for repeat visits and intensive academic summer schools over a period of years. The annual UNIQ residential summer schools are brilliant, and it’s precisely these sorts of access initiatives we ought to invest more in. Oxford (alas) can’t overhaul the sub-par state education system, but it can certainly take a more interventionist approach to keeping potential applicants on the straight and narrow.
Of course, in an age where it’s considered blasphemous to label any child as gifted for fear of upsetting their classmates, any such scheme would elicit endless hand wringing from the NUT. Indeed, engagement with teachers and the teaching unions is an access issue in itself. As a former comprehensive school pupil, I’m convinced that the biggest barrier to Oxford is not a lack of access, but incompetent teachers and a dysfunctional state education system. The University, then, has a responsibility to publicly (and loudly) bring the state sector to account on the real reasons behind the state/private discrepancy at Oxford- namely “why aren’t you lot sending us more applicants?”
Make no mistake, Oxford’s attempts to widen access are impressive- but labelling them as ‘satisfactory’ implies that there’s no room for improvement. We ought to be unashamedly proud of our status as the world’s greatest and most accessible university (true fact), but we can also get our hands much, much dirtier when it comes to criticising the state sector, and intensively coaching potential applicants from the most underprivileged backgrounds, from an early age.
Proposition – Harry Noad
The English are, by law, a nation. We inhabit this ‘green and pleasant’ land, a peoples originally descended from the Anglo-Saxons of old. In a week where a Belgian teenager of Albanian descent and a twenty-one year old from Stevenage have sparked raucous debate over the definition of Englishness, we the English nation have become embroiled in arguments over something that really doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Personally, I’m sick to death of schticky lists discussing what defines the concept of Englishness. A recent article from the Beeb was no exception: Is it a confusion over national identity that makes us English? An inability to win a penalty shootout? A fondness for cricket?! Fewer than one in a thousand of us play the damn sport! There is no ‘English’ sense of humour or universally accepted Church of England; the organisation that takes the name could hardly claim to represent every English Christian, never mind English person.
So what is an English person? If I were to pluck a little old lady from her expensive townhouse in Chelsea and put her next to a rough-and-tumble pre-teen from Newcastle, what connection would they possibly share? She could be drinking her Earl Grey and he his can of Carlsberg, and it’d be immensely difficult to identify any mutual qualities… save one. Both were born on England’s shores. That’s where their similarities begin and end. There is no need to delve into complicated accounts of genesis and heritage, what makes the two English is their shared birthplace: England.
Of late, we have confused this purely factual concept of Englishness with national pride, a sense of attachment to David Beckham and real ale, and a list of Brownite-esque ‘values’ from democracy and multiculturalism to queuing and drinking. To feel connections such as these is not to ‘feel English’, and herein lies the confusion behind the thousands of vitriolic articles written in the wake of Jack Wilshere’s unpopular statements. To discover where we first lost sight of what Englishness really means, we have to harken back to the 19th century.
If we go back to the first recorded usage of the word, a William Taylor letter of 1804, we find reference to ‘the Englishness of several fairy-tales supposed to be French.’ Used in such a manner, the word clearly refers to nationality, and nothing else. The next reference, too, was even more telling. In an 1838 edition of the New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, an article refers to ‘the Englishness of everything about man, woman, and child born in the island’.
This is the true definition of ‘English’ – being born in England. That is the long and short of it, and should be the limit of the word. An English muffin originates in England, French bread was ‘born’ in France. Affiliating ‘Englishness’ with the swelling feeling of pride at seeing Dame Kelly Holmes cross the line or Steven Gerrard blast a long-range effort into the back of the net is missing the point, and giving far too much weight to a single word. National pride is appropriate for anybody who has even a minor connection to a country, but a claim to ‘Englishness’, ‘Frenchness’ or anything else is simply factually incorrect. The furore over ‘Englishness’ is completely unfounded, and the controversy surrounding Wilshere’s assertions tiresome. If you’re proud of your country, whether you were born there or not, then sing its praises and fly its flag. Don’t let an outdated and (more recently) desperately misconstrued concept stand in your way.
[caption id="attachment_45836" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Debate about sport player’s eligibility to play for the English teams has rages in recent week. PHOTO/ONESALIENTOVERSIGHT[/caption]
Opposition – Maryam Ahmed
Englishness is an absolute blighter of a concept to pin down. John Major was lampooned for being out of touch when he referenced an England of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs.” Norman Tebbit famously devised a ‘cricket test’ to gauge the Englishness of first and second-generation immigrants. Jeremy Paxman devoted an entire book to grappling with the idea of Englishness. Boris seems to think Englishness has something to do with the Victorian game of whiff-whaff. More recently, the EDL have all but hijacked the Cross of St George, and taken to spouting the most hateful tripe under the guise of Englishness. It’s a minefield. No wonder we, the English, are collectively so hesitant to define what Englishness actually means. Whilst a consensus on our national identity must be reached, the proposition that Englishness is dependent on having been born in England is far too simplistic to be credible.
Firstly, reducing an entire nation’s customs, culture, and heritage to a matter of geography and (worse still) bureaucracy seems thoroughly un-English and rather cowardly. By resorting to such a rigid and unimaginative definition of Englishness, the proposition has conveniently dodged the awkward but pressing questions facing modern English society. How to unite all those in England under a common banner, regardless of socio-economic background, ethnicity, or religion? How to preserve English culture whilst welcoming newcomers? How to promote social cohesion? How to instil a sense of English pride without verging on nationalism? Scrawling ‘England’ on a birth certificate addresses none of these concerns. In skirting around them with such a superficial definition of Englishness, we risk leaving a cultural vacuum which far-right extremist groups are only too happy to fill with their own ludicrous views on national identity. The proposition, therefore, is not merely naïve, it is dangerous and detrimental to English society.
Secondly, the traits and eccentricities which truly define Englishness are evidently not restricted to those born in England. A stiff upper lip, of course, ranks highly on the list. Lord Uxbridge barely batted an eyelid when his leg was blown off during the Battle of Waterloo, saying only “by God, Sir, I have lost my leg,” to which the Duke of Wellington replied “by God, Sir, so you have.” But this same stoicism is displayed in bucketloads by newcomers to England. Indeed, one might venture so far as to argue that our immigrant workers and sporting heroes have more grit and innate Englishness than any born and bred English benefits swindler. And if the English ought to cry God for England, Harry and Saint George, then surely the millions of Indians who volunteered to fight for Queen and country during World War II had plenty of English pluck. England expected every man to do his duty, and they certainly delivered. The proposition would negate the enormous contributions made by our hardworking newcomers and our war heroes, on the basis that they were born overseas.
Even our greatest hymns acknowledge that Englishness cannot, and will not, be defined in physical terms. Both “Jerusalem” and “I Vow to Thee my Country” associate England’s green and pleasant land with the lofty ideals of love, faithfulness and service. The latter refers to a country whose “ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.” Englishness, in short, is a set of values and ideals, not at all restricted by one’s place of birth. If your correspondent were to follow in the footsteps of Norman Tebbit, she would propose the ‘airport test’: if you touch down at Heathrow and think “I’m home,” you’re home.
Proposition – Andrew Laithwaite
It’s pretty uncontroversial to say that people should be free to pursue whatever pastimes may take their fancy; whatever floats their metaphorical boat. Naturally however, such freedom must have its limits. It is the opinion that such limits are flouted where individuals take recreational drugs of the ‘Class A’ variety which underlies much of the opposition to the legalization of these substances (complemented by a decidedly-middle-class squeamishness towards the idea of people having too much fun).
One potential argument in support of this opinion appeals to the negative health effects associated with use, and the government’s purported duty to coercively protect individuals from themselves. People can be very silly, and should be stopped from doing such silly things that threaten their health, even if – in their supreme silliness – they think that they want to do them. Peculiar though, that this should be an argument that stops short of calling for the criminalization of the consumption of fatty foods, or of sun-bathing, or of the various sports that involve participants hitting one-another repeatedly (there are many). Maybe the difference is that all of these activities are judged to pose a much lesser threat to the ‘objective’ health interests of the individual than the practice of indulging in the notorious substances of the Class A crew. But if this is the case, why not criminalize suicide? (Again).
This question should serve to highlight just how ridiculous this line of reasoning is. The value attached to one’s health, relative to other activities and states of being, is subjective. Other people cannot be seen to possess the right to stick their nose in and tell me, or anyone else, that we’re wrong to value things differently to them, and insodoing force us to do things according to their way. Not everybody is quite so boring.
Perhaps a better case can be made for the enduring criminalization of Class A substances on the basis that, though people should be allowed to jeopardize their health if they so wish, they should not make themselves a burden to others in the process. But again, the inconsistent application of this reasoning in the current legal system shines through, as conspicuously as the presence of a burqa at an EDL rally. As far as financial costs are concerned, taxpayers already fork out millions for healthcare associated with lifestyle choices. Diabetes, predominantly caused by obesity, currently costs the NHS close to £10 billion a year, alongside a conservative estimate of £3 billion per year for drink-related health problems.
More shocking is the fact that the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is costing taxpayers approximately £16 billion per year. Yet it’s been a complete failure, and much like prohibition of alcohol in the States in the 1920s, it is destined to be so for ever more. As such, considerable money is still expended on healthcare for Class A drug users. It is therefore credible to assume that the British government would save an inordinate amount of money through legalization, especially when one considers the potential opportunities for taxing these substances in the same way that alcohol is. The only thing that the government is succeeding in doing with the ‘War on Drugs’ is violently shooting itself in the financial foot.
But what about other costs to society – namely the violence and crime that would surely come as an inevitable result of legalization? Concerned individuals might picture scenes of anarchy and lawlessness that would make Saturday night Camera look like a tea party, with crackheads running wild, mugging grannies and torching cars.
This hardly seems a credible mental picture. Where they exist, the direct links between taking various Class A drugs and violent behaviour are far less glaring than the link existing between violence and the consumption of alcohol. A statistic cited by the group Alcohol Concern showed that in the UK between 1999 and 2001, 45% arrested for assault tested positive for alcohol at the time of arrest. Meanwhile, 58% of those imprisoned for rape in 2003 had also been drinking in the six hours prior to the incident. That we are willing to accept these costs and not risk the more marginal ones associated with the use of Class A substances is a case of ludicrous inconsistency.
In any case, the overwhelming bulk of violence associated with Class A drugs comes as a result of their illegality, as opposed to their use. Think of the addict who mugs and steals to find the money to pay for his habit – such an action is only really made necessary by the context of the horrifically inflated prices for the substances he takes, and which he will continue to take regardless of their legal status.
Moreover, the criminalization of Class A substances is itself responsible for unparalleled suffering, death and destruction across the globe. Countless civilians are caught in the crossfire of gangs fighting for control of the illicit trade across Latin America and the so-called Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent of south-east and central Asia respectively; gangs which use their ludicrous profits to exempt themselves from the rule of law and to manipulate the state. Penniless farmers in Afghanistan have one of their only roads out of poverty – their poppy fields – destroyed by the same Western soldiers who share responsibility for the destruction that drove them to grow the crops in the first place. Rebel groups are financed, and destructive civil wars sustained through the drugs trade, and international terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda are literally able to make a killing.
Criminalization is the most significant crime against humanity of the modern era, and like all such crimes, it is our duty to do what we can to stop it. The image of a heroin addict injecting himself to death is not necessarily a particularly pleasant one to sustain. But how images of the tremendous suffering of innocents currently caused by the criminalization of such behaviour can be stomached any more comfortably is a truly tragic mystery.
Opposition – Amber Tallon
The answer to the UK’s drug problem today is not the legalisation of all Class A drugs, but a change of attitude through education.
It is true that laws directly addressing issues rarely work. Alcohol prohibition in America, the one child policy in China, censorship laws across the world – when a person’s rights are restricted to the extent that they feel trapped in their own country, they rebel against it, so a zero-tolerance attitude to drugs is not the answer.
The effect of education can be seen in the case of smoking. The number of smokers has been in decline in recent years, because of government pressure on smoking regulations with the health warnings on cigarette packets and anti-smoking schemes on the NHS. This kind of attention to drug-related problems is needed desperately before there is any discussion on their legalisation, because, unfortunately, the “taboo-topic” attitude to Class A drugs in this country is holding us back.
It is not “middle class squeamishness” to acknowledge that there are a large number of addicts in society, that many of today’s youth are exposed to drugs at quite a young age, and that the vast majority of people out there with an addiction are too ashamed to admit it.
In terms of education, what people need is the realism that comes with drug addiction. Rather than a cursory school assignment in which each group quickly pulls together a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the pros and cons of every Class A drug, young people need to see the reality of the damage that Class A drugs can do: people who have been forced to inject heroin between their toes because they simply cannot find another vein in their arm; individuals who have resorted to crime to acquire the money for their next fix; and addicts who have gone through the grueling and excruciating rehabilitation process. It is not just the scientific health risks and plain facts which need to be drummed into people, but also the harm drugs can do to those around you and to the wider society, and the emotional and psychological issues which inevitably accompany any addiction. Education has not gone far enough in teaching young people about the dangers of drugs beyond the black and white facts in a text book, and this has to change.
The immediate health risks do need to be considered as well. Class A drugs are much more likely to kill you after one try, whether through an overdose or an allergic reaction, and the risk is much higher than with substances like smoking or drinking. Class A drugs generally have more detrimental effects, like paranoia, panic and heart attacks, and the means of taking Class A drugs do their own irreparable harm, snorting, for example, which severely damages the structure of the nose, and injection, which destroys the veins. The role of the law is to provide some barrier between the public and these harmful substances. There is a reason why alcohol caused around 8,724 deaths in the UK in 2007 whereas ecstasy amounted to only 44 deaths in England and Wales in 2008, with heroin contributing to 897 deaths, still a worryingly high figure considering its illegal status. The legality of alcohol has made it socially acceptable. What is to stop the same thing happening to Class A drugs in the long-term? It’s incredibly easy to say, in theory, that health warnings and quantity regulation will stop Class A drugs from becoming a problem, but this is much harder to control in reality. Many Class A drugs are extremely addictive, and the majority of those arguing for their legalisation underestimate the incredible strength it takes to resist such an addictive substance, and the lengths that many addicts will go to get their next fix.
Concerning government’s role, the argument that legalising Class A drugs will remove them from the influence of gangs simply will not stand, because as soon as supply is restricted and regulated, a course of action the government would likely take to prevent drug abuse in the event of legalisation, people who need their fix will still resort to the black market if they have to, where drugs are of a much poorer quality and the possibility of debt puts people at an even greater risk from gang violence.
As well as this, the government would be unable to sell Class A drugs cheaply, for moral reasons if nothing else, to prevent them from becoming a staple in people’s lives. This would therefore leave a window open for poorer quality drugs, such as anthrax-contaminated heroin, supplied at a cheaper rate underground. While there is a demand for something that is difficult or expensive to acquire, there will be a black market to provide it. Period.
As I am sure you can therefore see, the way forward is education, not legalisation.
Proposition – Felix Chow
If there is one thing that Oxford students lack, it is the time to enjoy the many things the university has to offer. So why would students with essay crises and Prelims want to spend so much of their free time rowing? For those who choose to take up rowing, it can be extremely worthwhile and brings with it a unique combination of valuable experiences.
Before developing the case for rowing, it is important to acknowledge an obvious downside: the large time and emotional commitments that are required to take part. Not everyone can cope successfully with these challenges, and for those who cannot there are plenty of other activities. However, with good time management skills and the ability to balance work and play, rowing can be complementary to a busy work schedule. The wonderful thing about rowing at Oxford is the range of levels of involvement available; students can choose a level that works for them (While a Blues rower may be training for several sessions every day of the week, a casual college crew will be on the river perhaps twice a week).
Being involved in rowing at some level can be very rewarding. It provides a mix of experiences that is a very special opportunity available to all students at this university.
First, rowing is a source of personal development. In a university that only cares about academic learning, rowing picks up what tutorials leave out. Being part of a crew develops skills in team work, time management, and leadership among other things. Just like doing any other sport, rowing regularly contributes to health and fitness. Furthermore, the psychological and physical challenges in preparing for a race foster fortitude and the ability to see something through. These are invaluable life lessons that will stay in a student’s life long after they graduate.
Second, the social aspect is integral to being a part of a boat club. It is a prime environment to meet people from across the college and the university out of the context of the academic hierarchies. It is not uncommon to have boats with members from the JCR, MCR, and occasionally SCR all rowing towards a common goal. Club socials and crew dates are a great way to wind down from a busy day of lectures. And rowing blazers, love them or hate them, provide a sense of cohesion among the boat club. The shared experience and hard work lead to lasting friendships and camaraderie.
Third, taking up rowing is extremely accessible and affordable at Oxford University. College level rowing provides novice training that is open to everyone no matter their athletic ability. Rowing is one of those sports that people can pick up in their first year and become very good at by the time they graduate. Except maybe in a few “rowing colleges”, most rowers in the college first boats started rowing at Oxford. It is also an inexpensive activity. Students at this university are extremely privileged to have access to such good facilities across the colleges and at the university level, paid for by alumni donations and investments by the colleges. So being at Oxford provides a great opportunity to start rowing.
And fourth, rowing is a lot of fun! The feeling of gliding through the water perfectly in sync with seven other crewmates in a balanced boat is sublime. The races are extremely exciting, especially the format of bumps racing. Oxford being one of the few places in the world that hosts bumps racing allows rowers here to enjoy the thrill and nail-biting suspense of these “anything could happen” races.
Rowing is not for everyone. For those who choose to be involved, it is a unique experience that allows for developing character, building camaraderie, meeting people, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Opposition – Mirela Ivanova
We all remember that blissful and innocent time in Fresher’s week when we all thought rowing would be a fun thing to do. A nice, unique Oxford experience. ‘You’d be silly not to try it, right?’ they said. I mean, it’s almost like coming to Oxford and never drinking port. Or not owning a pair of chinos. Or never hearing yourself say something mildly pompous and realise that you might be worthy to go on Overheard of Oxford with all those other people you ridicule with your friends in the evening. You might as well not go to Oxford at all.
Weeks fly in Michaelmas and you begin to realise that your friends seem unusually tired in the early mornings. Sometimes you catch them coming in on a cold and wet winter morning, shivering in sportswear as you pop over to have a luxurious shower after an unjustifiable lie in on a Wednesday morning. But you don’t really think about it too much. Maybe they like jogging in the morning. Maybe that’s why they are so much slimmer and sportier looking than you. Maybe you should start eating less chocolate. You giggle and forget the incident even occurred.
As Hilary dawns on the beautiful Oxford spires and the dry winter has spread its arms over the All Souls towers, you rejoice in the beauty of Oxford in the snow. In fact, work is probably getting you down and as the concept you have now spent half of your year at Oxford avoiding all those things you thought you’d come here to do all you really need is a warm evening at the pub with your friends. But after dinner, you find them in that similar sportswear, leaving your halls of residence in the dark cold night. You wonder now. It’s getting a little suspicious. ‘Where are you guys off to?’ you ask, innocently. ‘Ergs’ they say, with a slight sense of despair in their eyes. As you contemplate that grunt of an unfamiliar sound, and assume maybe they were burping or had something stuck in their throat, you are suddenly mildly offended. They don’t even have the guts to explain themselves to you. You thought they were your friends, but maybe they never actually liked you at all. Maybe no-one likes you. Maybe Oxford was never the right place. You smile the thought away, as you remember telling your tute partner that Ethelred was your favourite palette of red earlier that day. You were made to be here, you self-assure desperately.
Before you know it, it’s Trinity. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, your college garden seduces you out of the library and you are drinking pimms in your beige clothing reminiscing on your foolish younger self which thought Oxford will change them. Ah, the silly things. Not less than a week passes however, and your friends seem to evaporate entirely. Whenever you see them, they are spiritless zombies sitting in hall staring blankly into the distance, until they occasionally blurt out another sound or too, like ‘cox box’ or ‘bump’ or ‘take a tap’ or ‘blade’. Sometimes, someone in hall would casually say a random word like ‘orange’ and they would all tense up in a paroxysm of muscle tension, but their faces show the fear and helplessness inside.
That was it. They were turned.
You ask them why they do it. The repeated, brain-draining, dull and painful action of pressing a blade into some water which is, in the end, nothing more than an inefficient mode of transport. The early cold spring mornings. The freezing water splashing their damp clothes. The rigid structure of the competitions, organised in the most arbitrary way to make winning disproportionately harder from the second position than from the very last. The little person at the back of the boat screaming in their face as they, clumsily in unison, press on and hum along to Les Miserables’ Look Down. “Look down, look down. Don’t look ‘em in the eye…”
They stare back at you. Empty looks. Distracted gazes. ‘It’s fun.’ They say, as they rub the sores of their bruised palms. ‘I think,’
They don’t know.
Their indoctrination was complete. Under your very radar, the cheerful and innocent freshers you met in Michaelmas had disappeared. They had gone into Boat House 101 and they were never coming back.
You see them again, sitting by a boat house. Crowds fill the spaces around them. It’s summer eights. The races are about to start. Their M3 team is racing. They stare, calmly. Then, the team before their boat crashes into a tree and they bump. This was the last day. They’d gotten blades.
Uncontrollably, unconsciously, violently and pertinaciously they all jump in a convulsion of anger layered joy. They’re standing on their seats staring at the river, they arms crossed in an X over their heads. “I LOVE YOU, ROWING!”
You never see them again.
Proposition – Josh Crossley
How many colleges is each member of this university a member of at any one time? One. How many balls does each college hold, at a maximum, each year? One. How many do most of them hold during an average student’s entire degree? One. Hold those facts in your mind as you (hopefully…!) carry on reading.
My college, Catz, is holding its ball in February next year. Our ball, in common with many other colleges, is a triennial event which means that I, as well as almost all other Catz students, will only ever experience one ball at my own college. It is difficult to imagine your college being completely transformed and given over almost exclusively to one event but when ball week comes round that is exactly what will happen. Why? Because a college ball is probably the social highlight of our university careers.
This week saw the release of the logo for the Catz Ball on the JCR Facebook page. Considering that it is only a small part of the event itself (it is amazing though, check it out!), the amount of chatter and excitement it has generated is amazing. This excitement is a reflection of what a huge event a ball is for a college and its members. It is literally the biggest and most expensive party many of them will ever go to; it is held at the place from which some of the most amazing memories of their life will have come; it is celebrated with the people who have made those memories so special.
It’s true, not all college balls manage to avoid being complete flops – whether it’s a lack of food, poor entertainment or queues for the toilet that are just too long, getting it exactly right on such a large scale and with such high expectations is difficult. After all, those who are running college balls are not professional event organisers; at the beginning of the organising process chances are that they are as inexperienced and ignorant as the average attendee. This doesn’t mean, though, that college balls aren’t worth the expense – the quality of an event, I believe, is not determined by a couple of mishaps on the night.
Instead, the quality of a ball is determined by the whole package a guest receives. The impression they get when they walk through the entrance; the selection of drinks available; the breadth of entertainment; and, yes, whether or not the toilets are particularly luxurious. These are material things, however. In addition to these factors there is the experience as a whole, which I believe is immeasurable. An event should not primarily be judged by the number of things on the table but by the quality of the company and the number of laughs. At a college ball, you are surrounded by some of your closest friends and the people with whom you have shared a unique experience in the form of a university career at an event which is billed as unforgettable and beyond compare. Whatever food is provided and however long the queue for the coatroom, this should shine through and make for a sensational experience.
Balls allow a college community to put their stamp on a huge event designed just for them, to celebrate who they are and what they’re about and to have a rip-roaringly fantastic time in the process. They are prone to mishaps and these are unfortunate but they should not detract from the overall experience which, at the end of the day, is a once in a lifetime one.
College balls are phenomenal. I only get one, and I can’t wait.
Opposition – Michael Scott
I’m a fresher, and I’ve never been to a student ball. And yet I dare to write this piece. Outrageous. I know. But I’ve never been to a ball because I wouldn’t dream on spending £100+ for an evening’s entertainment, except, that is, if Flight of the Concord’s were giving a concert. As far as I know, Jesus & Somerville didn’t offer the Flight of the Concord’s as an attraction. They were going to offer a shark, but then they didn’t. My friend, who went to the ball, said it was “Ok”. “Ok”? “Ok”!
Surely, if we’re paying £100 for an evening’s entertainment, it needs to be better thank “Ok”? Let’s be clear; it wasn’t just my friend who was distinctly underwhelmed by the whole experience. The ball is widely considered a failure, frankly, and most people I’ve spoken to who went have said slightly less kinder than a simple “Ok”. In fact, some people have been really quite rude about the whole thing.
‘Oh, an unfortunate case,’ you might say; ‘not every ball is like that.’ Well maybe that’s true. I imagine some Ball committee’s actually do their job. On the same night as the Somerville ball there was a St. Hilda’s ball, and Brasenose were having a bash too. Another friend raved about the free food on offer at Hilda’s, but he was hard pushed to find anything else to say about it.
Call me a party-pooper if you like, but I just don’t see how the money that we spend on these events is approaching something like ‘good value’. Surely something’s good value if it offers something you can’t get for a cheaper price. And what, exactly, does a ball offer that nothing else offers? A burrito? Pizza? A mock-up Jules Verne balloon? Really? Honestly? Novelty attractions are a waste of time. The food’s a nice touch but it’s not coming close to £100. A glass of champagne, maybe even two, is fine, but if it’s what really floats your boat, get together with a couple of friends, put in a tenner each for a decent bottle, and go to formal. You’re still £80 up on the deal.
My point is this; students are not getting anything at a ball that they don’t get elsewhere, and they’re getting asked to pay through the nose for the privilege. Let’s face it, we’re not the wealthiest demographic group, so why do we accept this debauchery when we could be having just a good a time doing something for considerably less money? I suppose I’m missing something. The ball’s not about the stuff you get, but it’s the whole ethos of the thing: Tradition, glamour and joviality. The college ball really adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Well, maybe. But as with all these grand traditions, there’s a hell of a lot of improvidence involved. Too much for most people. For ‘tradition’ read ‘reputation’. For ‘glamour’ read ‘extravagance’. For ‘joviality’ read ‘self-indulgence’.
It’s worth baring in mind what else you’re paying for before you hand over that £100 for someone’s now unwanted ticket. You’re subscribing to the ethos of a by-gone era. This might come as a shock to some of the most deluded, but most people in the outside world, looking into the bubble, won’t think much of the college ball. In fact, they’ll think it’s a sickening waste of money. When you buy that ticket you’re making a statement; that spending hundreds of pounds on a dozen hour’s entertainment is the way you want to live your life.
There are a couple of exceptions to the rule. The Union’s balls, ironically enough, are at around half the price of a ticket for a summer event. The RAG ball, while up there with the when it comes to expense, at least comes with a free supplement in the form of the that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you enjoy righteous revelry. Even so, it’s a lot of money, and there are other ways of donating to charity.
Which gets me onto my main point; going to a college ball just doesn’t seem justifiable. There are other ways of letting your hair down – I’m not attacking that at all. Everyone deserves the chance to go crazy and let loose every now and then. However, you’re a lunatic if you think that a college ball is the the best way to do that. Save your money, and when your college friends mutter a pathetic “It was ok” at you the next day, you’ll be glad you did.
Proposition – Tyler Overton
Here are some facts about injustice: according to UNICEF’s 2012 report on child mortality, 1 in 9 children in Sub-Saharan Africa die before age five (as opposed to 1 in 152 in developed regions). Over a billion people still live on less than pound a day. And, more locally, human trafficking is alive and well in Oxford, with 13 men arrested last year for prostituting 11- to 16-year-old girls.
These are real problems. And—what is more important—they are problems that we can do something about. In fact, they are problems that if we even pretend to hold ideas about love or compassion, we have to do something about.
There’s a great story I heard a few months ago in which C. S. Lewis and a friend run into a homeless man as they’re walking down Cornmarket. The homeless man asks for some change, and Lewis gives him the contents of his wallet. After the homeless man walks away, Lewis’ friend starts to give him a hard time: ‘What’d you do that for? Don’t you know he’s just going to walk into the nearest pub and spend it on drink?’ And Lewis turns (I imagine with a certain grumpy, Northern Irish gravitas), and says, ‘Just what do you think I would have spent it on?’
I think there are better ways to work for social justice than giving money directly to homeless people, but maybe we should spend some time thinking seriously about Lewis’ question. What are we spending our time and money on? And are these things in line with the global reality of suffering and poverty?
Let’s get real about the idea that we need to be in positions of power in order to work for social justice. Will giving and volunteering now prevent us from promoting justice later? And although our individual influences may be small, do we really believe that the charities we give to and volunteer with are making no difference whatsoever? Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people living below the extreme poverty line ($1.25 a day) was cut in half. The number of children who died before the age of five fell from 12.4 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011. These are not random fluctuations; they are reflections of the good work of charities and governments, and of the fact that lots and lots of people (some of them students) have given their time and money to support these institutions.
Social justice, as much as it is anything else, is a lifestyle of choosing to stand with other people in the fight for what’s rightfully theirs. And lifestyles don’t just appear out of nowhere. They take practice, and hard work—and the time to start practicing is now. Recognize the phrase ‘poor Oxford student’ for the trite lie it’s always been, and begin to notice those who know poverty and suffering first-hand. I don’t promise that doing so will make all the problems of injustice go away; only that it will enable us to live respectfully and in support of those for whom these problems are a part of day-to-day experience.
Opposition – Harry Gillow
Trinity term has arrived, and the combination of punting, pimms and prelims will inevitably mean that even less time is directed towards such vital issues as OUSU elections. Of course, this is not limited to Oxford – the recent announcement that the University of London Union is to be disbanded was triggered by a report that only 3,000 of its 120,000 members voted (the equivalent of the UK’s government being elected by half the population of Wales). This is not, however, to say that students have lost their radicalism: student activism remains as active as ever, and members of our universities will continue to devote time and money to social justice projects. Yet is this as worthy a use of these precious resources as it’s claimed to be?
All this depends on how social justice is defined. For some, it is about giving a small amount of time on a regular basis in fundamentally thankless tasks – teaching at underperforming schools, helping in local homeless shelters, working with disabled children – where their aim is simply to contribute what little they can to the community. Nothing could be a better use of time. But social ‘justice’, by nature of the term, implies more than this: a fight against inequality, oppression, those wronged by the systems of the world and the individuals who profit from them.
Here, then, is where the catch lies: far too often such lofty causes are used as an excuse to grandstand, to occupy (no pun intended, St. Paul’s) the moral high ground, from which, with a frowning air of disdain, the rest of us can be observed, judged, and found wanting. Irritating as such attitudes are, they could be forgiven if they genuinely contributed to the welfare of the world – it is, however, not only unclear that these achieve anything much of note, but in many cases they cause more harm than good, promoting division, and instilling a sense of superiority over the less fortunate.
This is most obvious in the instances of such fraught issues as the Israel-Palestine issue, or closer to home, opposition to government cuts. The former issue, for example, is doubtless one of vast importance, and it is entirely right that everyone should come to their own opinion about such a damaging conflict. What is, though, downright laughable, is to claim to fully understand: the politics of the Middle East has baffled senior statesmen of vast intelligence for over fifty years – the arrogance of a twenty year old politics student proposing a workable solution is absurd; how much more absurd to attempt to act on it? Similarly, protests against government cuts are understandable by those affected, and thus those against tuition fees are generally accepted as reasonable. However, the idea of privileged youths (as many students, no matter how they would like to think of themselves, are), who will, in two or three years, leave for their jobs at McKinsey or Goldman, marching on behalf of the very poorest elements of society, or promoting motions of “solidarity” in the JCR, is almost as ridiculous as George Osborne’s attempt at an accent. What could the vast majority of us possibly know?
Potentially more damaging, however, is the growing industry of “voluntourism”, the dangers of which a recent BBC article by Daniela Papi, a former serial volunteer, makes abundantly clear. Suffice it to say that not only is this effectively a way for students to take expensive holidays without feeling guilty, but the good achieved is often less than supposed: the money that so many people raise to take part could be far better spent employing skilled labour to carry out the same tasks. Why ask untrained students to build a school when you could ask the local builder? Certainly such efforts raise awareness, but surely the act of raising money would do the same? Moreover, there is a very real danger that the old viewpoint of Kipling’s “white man’s burden” rears its ugly head. The twenty-first century looks set to be a slow trek towards equal place for the developed and developing world in global affairs: such attitudes can only serve to breed patronising opinions that will slow progress to a snail’s pace.
Ultimately university is about learning. Those who are serious about wishing to contribute the planet will use their unique opportunity here to learn what they need to do so. It is too easy to assuage our consciences when young, and achieve little when older; true benefit can only be provided in the long haul.
by Chris Starkey
The Oxford Union owes its existence to its ability to reflect the current interests of students. It was founded because intellectual freedom was lacking in the lives of Oxford students, at a time when the University restricted exchange of ideas and opinions. Its survival since then has been on the basis that it is relevant to the contemporary interests of students. It remains a place where fashionable ideas can be shared, modern cultures explored, and academic skills applied to the pressing issues facing the globe today. The average Oxford student will have at least one experience of the Union, even if they are not themselves a member, although the overwhelming majority of students are.
Far from being cliquey and old fashioned, the Union is open and reflective of modern society. Current finalists will have seen only three Presidents in their time here who are white and male. Variety is clear across the active membership, in terms of gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, spiritual, beliefs, political opinions, academic subjects, and extracurricular interests. There is a strong case that the Union is becoming increasingly open and inclusive of the average student. The range of speakers has broadened recently, with such luminaries as Psy, Gaz from Geordie Shore, and David Gest’s Motown greats. This has attracted people to the Union who wouldn’t ordinarily do so, and rejuvenates the Union brand. Over the past year, the early stages of a digital strategy has been pursued, with events professionally filmed and uploaded online. The Union has embraced social media, and in addition to a refreshed Facebook and Twitter presence, will begin blogging on the Huffington post website. These developments dramatically increase the probability that an average student will come into contact with the Union, and that contact will be positive.
The Union draws students to it, and compels active involvement. Only a tiny number of active members are hacks. For a start, there are many unelected roles, so that members can: engage with the press, help with marketing and publicity, run the library, advise on finances, raise sponsorship, entertain guest speakers, and administrate elections. Events have an enduring participatory quality. The flagship Thursday night debates remain popular, regularly packing the Chamber, and provoking excellent floor speeches. The competitive debating team have consistent success, representing Oxford students at the highest level. Students are elevated to a level playing field with guest speakers, as they question, argue, and socialise with world leaders from across the globe. Further, opportunities for indirect involvement are numerous. Student journalism benefits greatly from the Union, as reporters interview speakers, review events and, occasionally, investigate controversies. It is easy to forget how lucky the Union is to have beautiful Victorian buildings at its disposal, and they are a hub of activity. Be it as a venue for the annual Town vs Gown boxing match, Law Soc President’s Drinks, or performances of ‘Frost/Nixon’ which will take place later this term, it is clear that the Union sits firmly in the mainstream of student culture at Oxford.
The less savoury aspects of the Union don’t change the fact that for the average student it makes a positive contribution. Hackery comes in many forms, and for the most part the election process reflects the natural propensity of students to network, compete, forge new identities, cultivate ambitions, and in the event, support their friends. That the Union sometimes inspires protest and controversy is, in many ways, proof of its positive contribution to student life: scandal is always a risk for institutions that are both participatory, and relevant.
At 190 years of age, the Union remains true to the mission of its foundation. It empowers Oxford students to probe subjects of contemporary interest, protects the principles of free speech, and puts the exchange of ideas to the heart of student life.
by Thea Bradbury
That the Union is a mixed blessing for Oxford students becomes apparent any time elections are held. Despite strict rules to prevent hacking, there are few people who haven’t had to make a hasty escape when confronted in the porter’s lodge by a power-hungry acquaintance. Although the phenomenon of hacking is not unique to the would-be Prime Ministers of Oxford’s most illustrious society, it’s a good example of the conflict between the apolitical body the Union claims to be, and the deeply politicised one it actually is.
The Union is feted as a bastion of free speech, as indeed it should be. Nonetheless, its lack of party political affiliation does not prevent every aspect of it, from the evening dress that officers wear to debates to the massive joining fee, exuding small-c conservatism. No-one ever explains the myriad rules governing what is and isn’t acceptable at the Union: the cowed fresher is left to muddle through to the best of their ability, constantly dogged by the suspicion that they should have worn a suit.
There are plenty of students – such as myself – who after the first few weeks of doubts about etiquette learnt to enjoy the events that the Union offers without too much fuss. And by itself, the Union’s aura of being in some ways a closed club wouldn’t be a problem. The fact that its upper echelons tends to be populated by a particular type of person – privileged and ambitious, and generally heading for a career in politics – would be completely acceptable were that its stated aim. Likewise, if it focused solely on attracting eminent speakers for the edification of students, it would be one of the most delightful societies in Oxford. However, its efforts to do both leads to an odd situation where the states aims to entertain and educate often feel secondary to members’ attempts to boost their CVs. This causes a certain subtle uneasiness in the ordinary students who just want to have a quiet drink in the bar or hear the Prime Minister of Slovakia speak.
Its hefty political influence makes the Union one of Oxford University’s best-known institutions; in many areas it is viewed as a sort of hyper-distilled version of the Oxford experience. Hence, somewhere around the fifth attempt to clarify to the outside world that they are neither a close friend of David Cameron nor in the running to be the next Chancellor, students come to define themselves as aligned either with or against the Union. Almost no-one manages to get through Oxford entirely indifferent to it. This is healthy neither for those expending all their energy organising Union events, nor for those trying to carve out an identity focused on academia rather than politics.
Furthermore, the Union’s attempts to mirror real political structures leads to equally real corruption scandals, as when former President John Lee was accused of wrong-doing over PSY’s speech. Clearly there’s nothing wrong with seeking to mimic the workings of democratic institutions, and most other Oxford societies do the same to some extent. However, there’s something depressing in the way a society originally set up against the wishes of the University has transformed into a key bastion of the establishment. A society that is all about questioning assumptions should not be a way for tomorrow’s self-satisfied politicians to get work experience. The Oxford Union is an important institution with much to offer students, but it would benefit them much more by regaining some of its radicalism and refusing to collude with an establishment that marginalises young people and their education.