At the close of last week Trenton Oldfield, the man who dived into the Thames and disrupted the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, was sentenced to six months imprisonment for causing a public nuisance. At Oxford (my own university) this news was met mostly with celebration. However, this is a sad verdict for a man whose (now deleted) web-based manifesto seemed to suggest a delusional but well-intentioned belief in small-scale civil disobedience.
But what is far more tragic about Oldfield's protest is that it has only served to perpetuate the elitism that it was directed at abating. The Oxford-Cambridge boat race is a bizarre symbol of elitism not because it exists, but because it draws such a ludicrously disproportionate amount of media coverage. Media coverage to which Oldfield contributed.
Rowing is clearly a loathsome sport. Two large boats, each oared by eight grotesquely muscular men move at slightly different speeds in the same direction, meanwhile skinny dwarves at the heads of each boat shout "Stroke!", "Arrhythmia!" or "Brain tumour!" every couple of seconds. For the roughly 20 minutes this lasts, those watching from the banks slowly drown themselves in Pimms and prosecco to relieve the terrifying boredom. If anything, Oldfield's interruption at least livened up an otherwise unbearably tedious event.
Only a very small subset of people actually ever have a go at rowing in their lives, and fewer actually follow the sport as spectators. The only other occasion upon which anyone watches it is the Olympics, and then it is only because Britain is relatively good at it. Probably because other countries would rather invest in serious events like the hop-skip-and-jump or the steeple chase instead.
It seems then that the interest whenever Oxbridge competes in this usually unpopular sport can only be a hangover from the days when Oxford and Cambridge mattered more than they do now. When you had better go and watch the race because the men in those boats would probably be running the country soon and the this might be a useful opportunity to size them up beforehand.
The press still treats Oxbridge with a totally unmerited veneration. When the Daily Mail prints hundreds of pictures of drunk Cambridge students returning from college balls every May-week it may like to think it's knocking those toffs off of their elitist pedestal, but in reality it is complicit in perpetuating that very elitism. By giving such broad coverage to Cambridge's annual post-exam week of white-tie drunkenness and revelry, it turns it into a national event, rather than merely a party week at a normal university. It feeds the notion that these universities are a sacred part of the national character rather than just successful academic institutions.
Oxford and Cambridge still usually rank at the top of UK university league tables, but their positions are shakier than ever. At the very least they do not deserve to be treated in a category of their own. In certain subjects they are clearly surpassed by their specialist contemporaries like Imperial or LSE and even where they rank ahead there is a continuum between their results and those of the universities ranked below them. There may once have been a genuine separateness, but this is clearly no longer the case. And yet the papers still treat the events that take place amongst their imposing, battlement-topped, stone walls as if they have national importance.
Just a couple of months ago a friend of mine had his name slandered in the Daily Mail, Telegraph, and then the international press due to a controversial article he wrote for the website of Oxford student newspaper the Cherwell. Whether the article really was the misogynistic trash it was touted as or not (it was certainly ill-considered), it was a piece of student journalism, probably written in front of some god-awful daytime telly half an hour before the deadline. If it had been penned by someone from Leeds Met, nobody would have cared. But it wasn't, the author was from Oxford. And so, a short article uploaded during the Summer break onto the most unread section of Oxford's second most popular student paper's website was worthy of a headline near the front of a national newspaper.
This media obsession with Oxford and Cambridge is an integral factor in solidifying their status as something more than just very good universities. It creates an atmosphere of misplaced arrogance and grandeur within those institutions, it fuels the perception that we are ruled by an elite, impenetrable, Oxbridge club, and worst of all it intimidates poorer students away from applying to what are seen as alien institutions that only lets in posh kids.
Both Oldfield's protest and the media coverage of the ancient universities may intend to give the finger to elitism, but by perpetuating the perception of Oxbridge exceptionalism they in fact strengthen the very barrier to social mobility that they wish to condemn. Like a bully, a cold or a public indecency charge, the elitism and snobbery of Oxford and Cambridge would probably go away if we could only just ignore it.