BARRY CAME November 23 1998


BARRY CAME November 23 1998



The Oxbridge lure of history and excellence


In the Great Hall at Oxford’s Christ Church College, far below the arching vaults of carved and gilded hammer beams, the vegetable curry vaguely disappoints. It is a bland concoction, not quite the royal repast expected in a

place where Queen Elizabeth I once feasted and where the patrons since have included such distinguished company as William Penn, Lewis Carroll and W. H. Auden, not to mention a string of 13 British prime ministers. But the quality of the food is of small concern to the five young men and women—Canadians all—assembled for lunch beneath the magnificent ceiling in the storied hall. “There are times,” says one, “when you can almost forget where you are. Then you walk into a place like this, surrounded by all this history, and it suddenly hits you all over again, the realization that you’re a student at the most amazing university in the world.

Drew Leyburne is the speaker, husky 23-year-old from St. Thomas,

Ont., currently working towards bachelor’s degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford’s St. Peter’s College. Like his four lunchtime companions, he is part of the small but eager contingent of young people from across Canada enrolled at one of those two British institutions of higher learning whose names have long symbolized academic excellence. Scholars may debate, as they always have, the relative merits of Oxford and its equally illustrious twin, Cambridge. There is even a significant body of scholastic opinion ready to argue that nei-

ther school entirely deserves the reputation they enjoy, suggesting that both are antiquated relics of the past, mired in outmoded traditions, crippled by their own long histories. But few will deny that in the world of advanced education, Oxford and Cambridge are unique, so similar in structure and approach that a collective noun—“Oxbridge”—has been invented to describe them and the system they both employ.

“It is certainly a very different kind of educational experience,” says Neil Fenton, toying with his rapidly cooling plate of curry. The 2&-year-old from Jasper, Alta., speaks from some experience,

having earned a bachelor’s degree at Princeton, then a master’s at the London School of Economics before embarking two years ago on a threeyear doctoral program in international relations at Oxford’s New College. “There is,” Fenton continues, “none of the spoon-feeding you get at other schools, especially in North America, where professors are on hand to constantly guide you, dictating what

chapter of what book to read, who is important and who is not. Here, you’re on your own, free to sink or swim.”

The tutorial lies at the heart of the Oxbridge model, the system of individual instruction and learning that distinguishes Oxford and Cambridge from most other institutions. It is particularly important for the universities’ undergraduates, each of whom will spend an hour or two every week with their own personal tutor, usually a fellow of the college where they are studying, often an authority in his or her field. The sessions take the form of frank, sometimes highly critical discussions of the student’s

essays. Students write an average of two essays a week throughout the three semesters, most often based on twice-weekly lectures by visiting

professors. “It really keeps you on your toes,” says Montrealer Christine Desmarais, 25, a second-year psychology student at Oxford’s Corpus Christi College. ‘You learn how to defend your ideas, clarify issues, see things in a new light.”

It can also be daunting, especially for students fresh from the relatively coddled environment of the average Canadian high school. Neither Desmarais nor Leyburne fall into that category. Like many Canadian undergraduates studying at Oxbridge, both have already completed undergraduate degrees at home. Desmarais is a graduate of McGill University’s school of engineering; Leyburne has a degree in English and classics from Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Que. They are at Oxford, working on their second bachelor’s degree, primarily because both are Rhodes Scholars. Says Desmarais: “Who could pass up the opportunity for a degree from a university with Oxford’s incredible reputation?”

be said for the kind of broad liberal-arts education that an undergrad receives in Canada.” Some 150 km to the northeast, on the banks of

the River Cam, Catherine Swindlehurst tends to agree, for slightly different reasons. She is 27, an Edmonton native with a BA and an MA in history from the University of Alberta, now in her fourth year of doctoral studies in 18th-century British history at Jesus College in Cambridge. ‘You really need a lot of self-discipline to succeed, especially at the undergraduate level,” she says. “Undergrads take one set of exams at the end of the first year, then nothing until the end of their third and final year. I’ve seen a lot of kids sick with the pressure at final exams. The dons worry about it so much that when the finals roll around, they close all the cupolas on top of the college spires. They’re too easy to jump off.”


Or ignore what may be the least onerous route in all of academe to a master of arts degree. It is one of the many oddities of Oxbridge, much resented elsewhere, that a bachelor of arts degree carries with it the automatic right to a master’s.

Seven years after earning a BA, each Oxbridge graduate receives a letter from his or her alma mater with the offer of an MA There are no examinations, no tests, no interviews. AÍ that is required is the payment of a $65 fee. No one is quite sure when the practice began. Its origins appear to date back seven centuries, when it took a student seven years to graduate from the lower faculties of grammar, logic, rhetoric and arithmetic to the upper faculties of law, medicine or divinity school.

Whatever the beginnings, few graduates today pass up the opportunity to add a glittering Oxbridge MA to their credentials. “It sure is a fast track—and a soft one—to a master’s,” agrees Emma Frow, 19, from Toronto. A second-year biology student at Cambridge’s Sidney Sussex College, Frow is one of the few Canadians enrolled at either Oxford or Cambridge without previous university experience. On graduating from the University of Toronto Schools in 1997, she was one of the first recipients of the Canada Cambridge Scholarship, established by Cambridge alumni in Canada to provide talented young Cana-

dians with the means to attend the institution. Until she won the scholarship, Frow confesses that she had never contemplated Cambridge. Now, she has few regrets. “The courses and, especially, the tutorials are structured to allow you to learn an awful lot from people who really know what they are talking about,” says Frow. “If I had gone to a Canadian university, I think it might have taken me a lot longer to get where I am today.”

That intense focus is both the main strength as well as, in the opinion of some, one of flaws of the Oxbridge model. “I’m not at all sure that I would recommend it for an undergrad,” muses Rebecca Mills, 28, nursing a pint of bitter in The Turf, a student pub buried in an Oxford back street. Born and raised in Toronto’s Beaches area, Mills earned a BA and an MA in English at the University of Western Ontario. She is now in her third year at Oxford’s Christ Church College, hoping to complete a doctorate. Her field is the female writers of the Augustan era of the late 17th and early 18th century. “I certainly cannot fault the education you get here,” she says. “But it all might be just a little too narrowly focused for someone right out of high school. There’s still a lot to

If the pressures are high, so are the rewards. And this is particularly true at the graduate level. Both Mills and Swindlehurst admit that, in their respective fields of English literature and British history, the well-stocked libraries at Oxford and Cambridge, not

to mention those in nearby London, offer unparalleled opportunities for original research. Much the same applies in a host of other disciplines, not least because of Oxbridge’s vaunted ability to draw top-level research talent.

Gwyn Lintern’s field is ocean engineering. A 28-year-old from Victoria, he is a science graduate of the University of Victoria who has also undertaken advanced studies at Nova Scotia’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography and the University of Wales. At the moment, he is enrolled in a doctoral program at Oxford’s St. Catherine’s College, where he is engaged in a project funded by the European Union aiming to devise new ways to deal with water currents and silting in European harbors. “I’m using my research to earn my doctorate,” says Lintern over a pint at The Schoolhouse, another student haunt in Oxford. “Where else could I get that kind of opportunity?”

It’s a question that most Canadians now studying at Oxbridge could also pose. There are not many of them, no more than 300 at both universities and the vast majority are graduate students. And they tend to get lost in the crowd. Cambridge boasts a total student body of 16,000; Oxford, 15,000. If their numbers are small, however, their prospects are certainly not. For an Oxbridge degree, no matter what the naysayers allege, is still the standard by which many other universities are judged. □