‘Stripping, vomiting and fighting: shame of Cambridge students after drunken bank holiday party in park ruins family picnics,’ ran the Daily Mail headline after some raucous shenanigans at the weekend. It’s an old staple. Newspapers and their prurient outrage wouldn’t be the same without photographs of students en déshabillé perched bottoms-up and comatose in rose bushes after May Balls or emerging bloody and dripping from the Cherwell after hurling themselves off Magdalen Bridge.
Accompanying the photographs of nicely-brought-up young people snogging, throwing up and copulating is the inevitable question: why would you let your son or daughter go to Oxbridge?
Actually, it’s a non-question. The inference being: shouldn’t these privileged students (who are, as governments never tire of pointing out, uniformly white and middle class) know better?
I don’t see why they should. They have been slaving like Trojans for three years before they even get to Oxford or Cambridge, not just with the exams that all sixth-formers sit but with the expectation, strain and poor odds of getting in.
And if they are lucky enough to win a place, the pace never slackens. Work is the quid pro quo for receiving one of the best educations in the world. But a blue-chip education it is – and that is why you’d want your precious child to go to Oxbridge. Plus the cachet, and the contacts, and the bragging rights.
Not that we should feel sorry for Oxbridge students. Theirs is a rarified and privileged world. But the envy that motivates much of the tut-tutting at their occasional antics seems misplaced. There is no sociological reason why studying at Cambridge should make a student a ‘young person’ rather than a ‘youth’; no genetic reason why the universal late-adolescent urge for riot and debauch should be any less prevalent on the Backs or Christ Church Meadow than among the young Brit holidaymakers in Ayia Napa or Magaluf.
The idea that a student, simply because they go to Oxford or Cambridge, should therefore drink in moderation (but of high-quality booze) is risible. If you are a 20-year-old paying £165 for a non-dining ticket for Worcester College’s Commemoration Ball, say – or £200 for Magdalene’s – it is unlikely you’ll stick to orange juice and a string quartet.
These periodic pressure releases may be unedifying but they are hardly indicative of a breakdown in society. Better for students to try excess now than when they are in positions of responsibility.
And they are on the whole good-natured. The Caesarian Sunday festivities at Cambridge may have featured a pre-arranged set-to between the Jesus and Girton drinking societies but it was not a fight in any real sense, more what used to be called a ‘bundle’. It fell far short of commonplace Saturday night town-centre violence.
A pig’s head on a stick was paraded, but it goes to show that at least one English undergraduate had read Lord of the Flies. And there is something almost endearing about a pink-cheeked 19-year-old flushed with cider announcing, “I’m going to fall over” and then doing precisely that.
There are two core subjects offered by every university in the land that don’t appear in their literature: how to drink and how to have sex with like-minded people. It may not be a comfortable thought for parents, but it is only fair that Oxford and Cambridge offer them too.