Isabella Reynolds is a History undergraduate at Oxford but is originally from Cambridge. Here she provides a personal perspective on her experience of inequality at an elite institution.
Until the end of March, I was living in university accommodation in Oxford. At my college, most first-year students occupy rooms in a single accommodation block with space for about 80 people. Each room is nearly identical: a vast expanse of green-painted MDF cupboards make up storage across an entire wall, and then the coarse, dirty, greyscale carpet – its original colour a mystery – is littered by a small desk, a lamp, a mini fridge, and a bed with fold-down legs.
Inequality is rife at my university; this fact is not in question. Oxford, in its present state, even if you can breach the barrier to entry, relies on a culture of pervasive and poisonous exclusivity. This is damaging to thousands of students and is best suited to a select group of privately educated, white, heterosexual men – the ‘pale, stale, and male’ of the millennial generation. However, there was an undoubted sense of comradery among those that lived in my building that transcended wealth and class, and originated from the small things that now provide the backdrop of some of my fondest memories. It was the feeling of being the shared perpetrators (and victims) of the corridor’s foul odour; it was the frustration of taking turns to shower in the only cubicle with a passable water pressure; it was those fleeting conversations that took place in the stairwell while we moaned about being perpetually late for a lecture, lab, or essay deadline. One February night saw all of the right side of the building’s occupants roaming the corridors at 4am, our sleep broken by the attempt to find the origin of an unbelievably loud and piercing drilling noise – only when one brave explorer ventured into the bitter night did we discover that the Sainsbury’s downstairs was fitting new self-checkouts. Our fundamental facilities were equal, with the same access to libraries, sleeping areas, and wonderful teaching being shared by all first years at my college.
The pandemic destroyed any semblance of shared experience. Coronavirus is the farthest thing from the ‘great leveller’ as was heralded in March not only by the British government but also progressive figures such as Deborah Frances-White. The summer term of my first year of university was held online. In almost every way my circumstances were lucky, and I was able to cope well with the transfer from in-person to remote teaching. My mother, working for an Institute of Cambridge University, had a secure job with little threat of job-loss or furlough, meaning that our financial situation was not changed by the pandemic. My sister and I were able to share our living room as a study, setting up a desk by pulling through a table that had been idling in our shed for years. I already had a laptop and sufficient internet connection at home. My college provided each student with £200 to spend on academic books that we were not able to access online. My relatively privileged background and university community thus cushioned the spiked edges of lockdown; my ability to work for my degree was preserved.
Lockdown provided many of us with ample time for self-reflection. I wondered what was happening to my peers whose parents had lost their jobs, or whose houses were too small or too noisy to allow for a comfortable working environment. Oxford University sent out a questionnaire to identify those students with inadequate resources so that they could be better supported. The proposed solution to hardship was application to the ‘Student Support Fund’ – a protracted processwhose inaccessibility is compounded by the fact that only a small fraction of students are actually eligible to access bursaries in the first place. For a short period, York University’s website recommended that students without a computer or internet connection should suspend their studies. The message was clear: if you do not have the resources to support yourself through a global crisis, you do not belong here. The pre-existing inadequacy of support for undergraduate students with difficult home lives was made all the more apparent when Covid-19 forced universities to recognise that domestic issues were inseparable from academic ones.
There were a few things that made me truly happy during lockdown even when I was lonely, depressed, and anxious. First and foremost was my garden. By the start of term, it was abloom with roses, and I was able to wander around picking flowers for a new bouquet each evening. The enforced time at home allowed me to learn the basics of gardening, and I grew physically strong digging compost and mentally strong doing weeding, my preferred flow activity. When I was really sad my mother would recommend that I write a list of things that I was grateful for. Looking back at a list I made in late May, I had written ‘flowers, sewing, and ink pens.’ The truth was that any personal silver lining of Covid-19 was a result of my middle-class privilege. Not only does growing flowers require private outdoor space, but it is also necessary to have access to tools, seeds, and an external water supply. The case of sewing is comparable. Unlike during World War Two, when ‘Make Do and Mend’ was (supposedly) nationally accessible as long as you had a needle and thread, upcycling and altering clothes today is very much a bourgeois pastime. Fast fashion is essential for many families who cannot afford the sky-high prices of sustainable long-lasting brands or who do not have the free time to alter poorly fitting clothes.
During lockdown, disgust brewed in my gut, a distant cousin of the feeling I experienced when a university acquaintance described her £300 jeans as ‘reasonably priced’, or when a friend had given away a £195 winter ball ticket without blinking twice. It was similar to my stomach-knotting every time during fresher’s week when I was asked by a fellow student “What school did you go to?”, only to watch their eyes glaze over as I responded with the name of a village state school. But while both were responses to inequality, the feelings were not the same. In Oxford, the nausea of imposter syndrome was outweighed by joy from genuine friendships and fulfilling experiences. During lockdown, the virus acted as a magician pulling away the tablecloth that had been veiling the inequality of my community. This feeling was made stark when Michael Gove announced that the “virus does not discriminate.” To say something so untrue was ignorance of vile proportions. Even in my sheltered bubble the inequality was striking: I could see some of my close friends receiving £800 a month in furlough pay (read: pocket money) from their gap year jobs while being entirely financially supported by their families; other people I knew worked twelve-hour shifts at Addenbrookes and could not see their families for months on end, having moved out to avoid infecting their loved-ones. In July, as lockdown was being eased, I found it hard to reconcile the fact that some of my college peers were posting Instagram pictures of them eating oysters in Michelin-starred restaurants while others were still self-isolating at home with shielding family members. These discrepancies were not new, it was merely that the pandemic made the visible spectrum more extreme.
It is easy to look upon the pre-Covid-19 world with rose-coloured glasses – the good old days when we could touch our faces and hug our friends without considering our own mortality. For me, this is not the case. The tragedies of Covid-19 are, and continue to be, the product of the heinous neglect of society’s most vulnerable. If a single good thing can be found among the devastation, it is that Covid-19 is an undeniable exposition of inequality for those who previously turned a blind eye to injustice. It has made me more attuned to the effect that someone’s home circumstances have on their life as a whole. It has allowed me to better recognise the inequalities of my communities, both at home in Cambridge and at university. More than this, though, it has made me determined to enact change. I want a world where adapting to new crises does not have to exacerbate existing class and race disparities. The list of things that I am grateful for has changed. I am grateful to be a student, with a community and platform that welcome new ideas. I am grateful that the pandemic has proved the impotence of current support provisions both on an institutional scale at Oxford University and on the national governmental scale, because it has shown me more clearly what changes need to be made, as well as their urgency. I am grateful that I am no longer content to find excuses for my own inaction.