How damning is Durham’s Oxbridge reject stereotype?

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The ‘Oxbridge reject’ stereotype may well be the most entrenched aspect of Durham University folklore: I’ve even heard about fresher’s attempting to bond over interview horror stories (couldn’t have been me). So, the revelation that the majority of Durham’s students never applied to one of the UK’s two most distinguished universities seemed to come as quite the shock: with some even calling into question our renown as bitter rejects, drowning our sorrows in the cheap alcohol and desperate to make ‘Doxbridge’ happen. For all we know, we might discover Bristol and Exeter aren’t full of Durham rejects next – a distressing thought to say the least.

Our favourite stereotype can also be confirmed as our most accurate

But ultimately, does the 43% average really crush our preconceptions? It feels quite a lot higher when you consider that just 3% of all A-Level students apply for Oxford or Cambridge. From this perspective, despite its repute, Durham is actually significantly more representative of the national ratio of public/private school and northern/southern students in the country, so the only real surprise about this figure is how high it is. Perhaps the collegiate structure draws in the same students, or maybe Durham’s reputation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with teachers increasingly inclined to recommend Durham as the perfect second choice to prospective students. The (mostly) picturesque architecture, small city setting and similar course structures, which always make a big impression on open days, could also go a long way to explaining this. Either way, what is clear is that our favourite stereotype can also be confirmed as our most accurate.

This article then, will focus on discussing how we can make this reputation a positive. On the one hand, it suggests the university is consistently attracting a very ambitious and driven cohort of students – a sure sign of a stimulating learning environment. But equally, it is important to not devalue the achievement of undergraduates attending some of the leading courses in the UK or even, in the case of some humanities students, the world, by typecasting Durham as a backup university. In the same respect, it is just as crucial to not leave students who did not apply for Oxbridge feeling unvalidated by implying they are on a different academic plane to their peers. Evidently, the stereotype can, at least in theory, have some problematic implications, and from flicking through a few YouTube vlogs, it is quite apparent a handful of students do feel a little alienated by it.

Resolving this often-undetected issue, however, is more complex than diagnosing it. It would obviously be completely unfair to discriminate against applicants based on their choice of university to bring this average back down, so Durham’s departments have little choice but to continue accepting large numbers of ‘rejects’. Indeed, while a quota-driven approach would be a very eloquent solution to questions over, for instance, Durham’s intake of internationals, in this case, it would mean penalising applicants to Oxford and Cambridge for displaying academic ambition. It’s much harder to take approaches that were intended to increase the diversity of students’ backgrounds and apply them to something that’s an entirely personal choice.

Clearly students at Durham have so much more in common than being snubbed academically

Instead, a much simpler approach would be to keep the reputation entirely tongue-in-cheek. It has persisted for so long, without any statistical proof, for the same reason as the now debunked assumption that 70% of Durham students marry each other: its abundant comedic value. From TikTok to Durfess, there have been some wonderful takes on this stereotype – and though it remains a major part of the university’s image at other institutions, this is rarely cast in anything other than a sarcastic light. From my experience, I haven’t found any cases of students actually taking the stereotype seriously or creating some kind of exclusive circle only open to Oxbridge applicants, so the solution to this problem is a relatively straightforward one surrounding sensitivity. Clearly, students at Durham have so much more in common than being snubbed academically, so the best approach would be to embrace the stereotype as reflecting something of a reality, but to do so on our own terms.

Indeed, when you consider that undergraduates at other universities are famous for buying completely new wardrobes to pretend to be edgy (Bristol), actually having Katie Hopkins as an alumnus (Exeter) or hoping their future employers accidentally misread their applications (Oxford Brookes), being Oxbridge rejects honestly doesn’t feel that terrible. On a positive note, at least Durham is more famous for the academic ambition of our student community than its ostensibly questionable nightlife.

Image: Scott Hewitt via Unsplash

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