The Stones of the University of Oxford

By Professor Danny Dorling.

‘Oxford’ by Isabella Lill

The stones that make up Oxford University are dense, much denser than any normal stone. These stones are more than their base material. They are not just the Corallian Limestone first cut in Oxfordshire quarries in the 1300s and transported into the city by ox cart; they have long since metamorphosed into something far more potent. A mineral that can apparently endlessly suck in money and sweat, labour and blood, while not seeming to undergo any significant change to its outward appearance. The stone from those same quarries was used to build Eton College, Blenheim Palace, and Windsor Castle; flourishing there too with later rises in those institutions riches, but not quite to the extent that the stones of the University of Oxford have changed over time from within. For a start, there were far more of them in Oxford. By 1756, the University was enormous, but what happened within was largely hidden from sight.

Map of Oxford used to illustrate a list of Oxford professors of poetry from 1708-1999.

The University of Oxford was not built as the giant medieval cathedrals in mainland Europe were – designed to tower over the surrounding countryside and inspire awe, wonder, and subservience. The University was built to be hidden away in a valley, a secret hollow between the hills, a gravel bank at the confluence of two small rivers. It was built to be defended, a place in which to hide away from the material world – the world outside which existed to serve it and its higher purposes; its motto: Dominus illuminatio mea (the Lord is my light).

Over time, the stones grew denser as the financial surplus grew greater. The local quarries were emptied out. Far away, in Wales, coal and slate mines were slowly emptied by children and adults working in the dark. Farms were bequeathed to colleges with names such as Jesus. For centuries, the farm labourers’ efforts filled the colleges’ coffers and slowly further saturated the wealth within its walls.

The culture of getting something for nothing, continuously and in perpetuity, became well established. The plantations of Ireland and later of the empire were brought into the levy of many of the colleges and became part of a global flood of tribute. The stones grew heavier; the towers rose higher and spread across the gravel bank.

painting of Shotover Hill, Oxford
‘View of Oxford from Shotover Hill in Floodtime, When the Water was Out, 10th January’ by John Baptist Malchair, 1791.

In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh describes 1920s Oxford as “a city of aquatint”. (Aquatint is a printing technique that produces areas of tone, rather than lines, so that colours blend more easily.) When the  British Empire was at its peak, the University was populated by students whose wealth was often derived from their family’s investments in that empire. However, Oxford’s intake changed as the British Empire’s power waned, triggering the subsequent increase in income equality that saw a rising proportion of state school admissions to the University. Oxford, both the city and university, began to change.

graph showing undergraduates admitted to the University of Oxford from state schools 1927-2018
Hann, C. and Dorling, D. (2019) A Changed Institution, The Oxford Magazine, No.411, pp.4-6, 0th Week. Michaelmas Term 2019.

By the 1980s the tide had turned again, away from growing equality, away from a rising state school intake, and away from a diminishing Oxford influence on the nations of the UK. Oxford returned to the building up of unequal wealth, defence of snobbery and eugenic thinking that only a few had great potential. 

Recently, it’s become apparent that we are close to seeing the end of this trend. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of British undergraduate offer-holders rose from 60.5% to 69%, with the 2020 figure expected to translate into 67% of places. However, although these figures look promising, we must account for the fact that very few of these state school students come from normal homes when measured by income. The median child in the UK grows up in a household that survives on a total household income of £21,840 per annum after tax and before paying for housing, food, travel, clothes and all other essentials.

In Britain today, a child’s A level results are mainly determined by the school they attend – not by inherent ability, or by how hard they work. A child of below average ability (in the second quartile at age eight, to be precise) is three times more likely to receive AAA+ at A level if they are sent to a private school than a child of above average ability who is sent to a state school. That child of privilege is six times more likely to receive AAA+ than a child of similar ability who is not wealthy. As a result, England’s ‘top universities’ – which require such A level results for admission – are more likely to offer places to the less able children of the rich.

I, too, was a median child. As a boy in the 1970s, I would play on Shotover Hill. The trees had grown high by then and there were no clear views of the University. The city had grown up around it. More people now worked in the car factory at the foot of the hill than served at college tables, but the University continued to accumulate wealth and become progressively more cloistered. In the 1980s, the Bursar of Magdalen College built a moat around his college lands to keep teenagers like me out. In his memoirs, he wrote about those locals he saw as miscreants, which also recount his predecessor visiting a local school in Temple Cowley and pointing out a boy with the ideal servile demeanour to work in his college. This boy would later become the College’s head porter. By contrast, as I grew up in the city throughout the 1980s, Oxford gave succour to teenagers who – their egos expanded and confidence boosted – would later become prime minister after prime minister after prime minister. The stones had infected their minds. I later learned that what I saw was not new, but rather part of an unbroken chain that goes back centuries. A few months ago, I heard the word ‘miscreants’ yet again being used by a college fellow to describe Oxford residents.

Boris Johnson, when he was a teenager in the city, was inspired by  Margaret Thatcher – the then prime minister. Thatcher, in turn, looked up at Winston Churchill’s portrait and saw her destiny whilst studying in Oxford in the 1940s. Churchill, similarly, looked to the Oxford-educated prime minister of his teenage years, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, when he was in Sandhurst in the 1880s. Cecil, in turn, looked to Robert Peel – the first modern Conservative, according to A. J. P. Taylor – for inspiration whilst a teenager studying at Christ Church (Oxford) in 1847. Peel himself, as a teenager at Christ Church in 1805, had Pitt the Younger as a role model. And today, a teenager amid the stones of Oxford University will be looking up at Johnson and feeling the very same weight of destiny upon their shoulders – that which continues the unbroken line whereby a tiny few rule over the many. 

Those who taught the generation now in power in Britain were, at the very same time, building up endowments and laying down wine for their successors – wine often still being drunk today. They were defending and deepening their justification for a place apart. It was a time when things could have changed for the better but, instead, Britain became progressively more cloistered, more divided. The colleges took in more women and more children from state schools, but the aim was to co-opt and cultivate, not to diversify. The progressives of the past were now few and far between. The stones of Oxford became a Petri dish for the new, more brutal, more callous future. Today that could change again – and possibly for the better – but to change requires facing up to what you are and what you produce, and knowing what lies deep within the stones. The same stones which were mainly shaped by local people to build palaces for newcomers to live and be educated in for the good of themselves.

As inequalities in income and wealth began to rise again, Oxford University accepted many more millions in donations, in return for putting the name of a man on a building. In 2017, Bo Rothstein, a then Professor of Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, resigned from the University citing Blavatnik’s donation to Trump’s inauguration, which he called “incomprehensible and irresponsible”. In 2019, the University accepted a £150 million donation from Stephen Schwarzman, current CEO of the Blackstone Group and former chairman and Head of Mergers and Acquisitions at Lehman Brothers. Questioning the legitimacy of the ways in which Blavatnik and Schwarzman made and continue to make their money results in threats, most recently from the latter billionaire’s spokesman. Today, the old men’s money is used to renew the old stones.

There have been many times in the past when the city of Oxford and its people would rally against the desires of the University; however, Oxford City Council now has a leaflet that informs residents about cheaper areas outside of the city centre, while colleges continue to expand their accommodation in central Oxford. But who will come to live beneath the new stones, and what will they be taught? The slogan on the leaflet reads, ‘Building a world class city for everyone’. But the city of Oxford is increasingly for the select few.

The future of Oxford could be so different to what the University has planned for the city. Oxford could be the greenest city in Europe, but because of the 40,000 people who drive over its greenbelt each day, it is one of the least green. Today, as its University supports the construction of a motorway to Cambridge, the city serves to exemplify just how ignorant people in power can be made by money.  It is so important to unearth the University’s past, to show how much it has contributed to and profited from exploitation, and to illustrate how it is currently in danger of becoming the pet project of Trump’s billionaires because if we don’t, we may not see a better future in our lifetimes. The Oxford-Cambridge Expressway need not be built.

Oxford City Council leaflet explaining the Oxford Link
Oxford City council leaflet published in 2019.

A plaque occasionally appears on a college wall acknowledging the fact that a college building was financed through slavery, but that is about as far as change around here goes. The stone statue of Rhodes has not fallen; it remains the highest statue on the high street. The University will not be able to make any really significant strides in access and diversity until those in charge acknowledge the problem with putting Rhodes on a pedestal. Although the proportions of state school and ethnic minority students that Oxford admits at undergraduate level are on the rise, changes such as those which have recently come into effect at elite Scottish Universities – which now admit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds with ABB while requiring those with higher socio-economic backgrounds  to gain AAA+ – tend to still be viewed as an impossibility at Oxford. 

map showing changes in urban cover in Oxford from pre-war to 2013

Oxford is built on a swamp. It is built on the land between and around the rivers. The settlement was here long before the University appropriated its name, and the settlement will be here long after the collection of buildings in its centre are no longer the apex of such money and power. Our world is at peak inequality. In Oxford today, the most common way to die for young people is to die homeless. Most homeless people who recently died in Oxford went to school here; they were locals. As adults, many lived in hiding, including in tents in the undergrowth. 

Oxford University is changing. It is waking up to its past and, slowly, some within it are writing a better version of its history. Many of the portraits on its walls are being taken down, partly to try to hide the culpability, partly in the hope of creating something better. The people of this city are beginning to imagine what a world class home for everyone who lives and works in it would actually look like. One in which people who worked in the city could also live in the city, as almost all of the car workers did when I was a child. The University could decide that there is more to having a soul than simply selling something when the price is right. 

It’s time to begin to lighten the stones. It’s time to work out how to be good without believing that it is mutually exclusive to being rich. Dear Oxford University; take down the statue of Rhodes and move him indoors, where he can be looked down on rather than up to. Begin to question the stories you have been told, because far too many are untrue. Work out how to finance the University of Oxford from sources that do not include the most disreputable of donors, investments in the most unethical of funds, or some of the highest university fees in Europe. If another source of finance is needed to preserve the old buildings, then look to the tourists – they will come to see the stones for many decades to come. Plan for a city that is green and open, not grey and exclusive. Accept students from normal backgrounds again, from median income households and average state schools. Ask how reparations can be made for all that has been done that was wrong. There is no need to hide behind the stones anymore, unless you are ashamed of what is within.

Danny Dorling is an English social geographer and the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

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