On Saturday 11th February 2017, the Independent published a piece entitled “Oxbridge still has a problem with elitism – as the student trying to burn money in front of a homeless man shows”. Atop of the article sits a large photo of Ronald Coyne, the student who, in a disgusting act of cruelty, burned a £20 note in front of Ryan Davies, a homeless man in Cambridge. This incident has since made national news and has rightly disgusted the nation.
What has been missed, however, is how much it’s disgusted those of us who are connected to the likes of Coyne by the name of the University alone. Most coverage of Coyne has generalised Oxbridge students as a homogeneous entity who spend our time revelling in riches and quaffing champagne, dismissing the acts of people like Coyne as ‘just Oxbridge things’. This could not be further from the truth, and does a great disservice to the efforts of students and staff who push constantly against Cambridge’s history of institutional inequality.
“Cambridge is a place where privilege and poverty sit cheek to jowl, and Coyne’s act exacerbated this divide. He represents the very worst of Oxbridge privilege. He does not represent us all”
Let me be the first to admit that Oxbridge does have an elitism problem – both universities have long been the bastions of privilege for several centuries. The facts are well-known: 41 of the 54 Prime Ministers since Robert Walpole have been Oxbridge-educated, and this institutional privilege is not limited to the top job. Oxbridge graduates make up one in four of our MPs, 74 per cent of the top judiciary and just over half of Britain’s top journalists. Moreover, the city’s population as a whole is representative of the socioeconomic stratification which has characterised Britain as a nation obsessed with class. House prices in Cambridge have risen at a faster rate than any other city in England and Wales, inflating by 50 per cent in the period between 2010 and 2016, and a recent report released by homeless charity Shelter found that 144 people in the city are homeless. Cambridge is a place where privilege and poverty sit cheek to jowl, and Coyne’s act exacerbated this divide. He represents the very worst of Oxbridge privilege. He does not represent us all.
The infamous Bullingdon Club, whose alumni includes ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, occupies several column inches annually with stories of its members and their heinous behaviour. Such focus is not unjustified, but the internal student derision for such drinking societies fails to appear alongside it in media coverage of Oxbridge. Nor do the efforts of Oxbridge students who fill their time outside of their degrees being the opposite of the totalising image perpetuated by generalising media coverage. Though it would be naïve to claim that the likes of Coyne don’t inhabit the University in large numbers, that the media insists on presenting them as the norm indicates an almost fetishist obsession with perpetuating an image of the Oxbridge student body as wholly pale, male, and stale, and seemingly all with (literal) cash to burn.
In its insistence on presenting Coyne as symbolic of us all, the media has missed the subsequent outrage present within Cambridge. But there are many Cambridge students who are hyper-aware of how fortunate they are to be at the University, and many who have overcome the odds in earning their place here. These students are often the ones who are addressing the problem of elitism every day. Yet, the same journalists who generalise all of us as posh toffs are the ones who criticised students who sought to confront Oxbridge’s institutional colonial history. Weird bacchanalian initiation ceremonies and glitzy balls have reached the heights of cultural legend; the reality of Cambridge students carving spaces for the historically marginalised, fighting back against a student mental health crisis, and leading protests against the further marketisation of higher education are never picked up as stories by national broadsheets. Knowing the work we do to fight the Oxbridge stereotype, it is frustrating to see the totalising image of Oxbridge in the media that suggests we are all like Ronald Coyne.
It is one question to ask why the media is so obsessed with Oxbridge students. It is another to ask why the papers are so obsessed with painting us all in the same, often disingenuous image. On the day the Independent piece was published, a friend wryly noted in conversation that we are essentially running thousands of pounds worth of student debt just for the brand name of ‘Cambridge’ on our CVs. The privilege Oxbridge affords us is huge, and, as Millard noted in her piece, fuelled by structural inequalities present in the nation’s institutions. Coyne is a product and benefactor of that, but he is not representative of us all. Just as students have taken the responsibility to fight against the likes of him and what he represents, the media, too, has to take responsibility for accurately representing us as we do so.
In the days after the news of the Coyne incident broke, Cambridge students signed petitions to have him expelled from the University. Student-run comic Facebook pages have denounced him, stating that “every single one of us feels ashamed of the actions of this one individual.” A student-run appeal requesting for donations for Jimmy’s Homeless Shelter – a local provider of support for the homeless – has, at the time of writing, reached 93 per cent of its £3,000 target within a day.
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