This morning, like every morning, I woke up and put the news on. As the screen flickers into life, I’m watching teenagers open A Level exam results live on television and talk about their futures.
Rather them than me.
It’s the same scene every year, although I was slightly taken aback that any awareness of it had passed me by. Today is a day that used to loom really large in the collective consciousness of everyone I knew, functioning as a seemingly innocuous reminder that this would soon be us and the fleeting fantasy of opening up shitty results on telly was a suffuse nightmare shared by many. That anxious awareness of Results Day continued for years afterwards too, punctured by ‘Nam-like flashbacks of hormonally exacerbated panic attacks.
I barely remember my results day now but it wasn’t a day I particularly enjoyed. I remember I got very drunk at the end of it. There might have been a live chicken involved in inebriated shenanigans. The emotional memory is that it was underwhelming but nonetheless fraught. There was quiet contentment and relief from most with tears of disappointment on either side of this, from the underachievers who saw this day coming with fair warning and overachievers who couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t get a clean sweep of A*s. The Oxbridge few would get their picture in the local paper.
My results were a bland sweep of mediocrity but I didn’t care. I just wanted to be out of college. I had more pressing personal concerns at the time than exam results. School felt like an obstacle for getting my life in order at that point but I did end up going to university all the same, under the pressure of an immanent trebling of fees, which meant that just about everyone else did too. Thankfully, the entry requirements for an arts degree were minimal, based more on a portfolio assessment than UCAS points.
I also remember I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. I had floated the idea by my Mum that I could do an apprenticeship instead and just start working. I thought I was being sensible, considering the economic climate in 2009, peak recession, but it left my Mum in tears. In hindsight, that would have been a fucking awful decision to make. I could be living my life photographing babies and weddings in East Yorkshire. Bleak.
Thankfully, I fell in love with university. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have found out that I like to write too or that I had anything to say and I wouldn’t be spamming you all with posts twelve times a month.
A lot of others didn’t share that experience, rushed into decisions and down paths that weren’t right for them.
In light of this, what I’m struck by on the news this morning is just how diverse the paths being taken now are, as alternative qualifications and routes to employment proliferate. People seem happier today with their options. I disagree with university course fees and the miserable class dynamics within institutions on principle, but at least there’s a wealth of choice now where previously there was none.
Nonetheless, as is the case every year, there is a push for the dissolving of our “social apartheid” and the diversification and democratisation of that singular and hallowed path towards an induction into our national elite — or that’s how it is sold to so many anyway.
This morning it was David Lammy’s turn to send the obligatory tweet:
But I’m really not convinced that this is something worth fighting for at all for anybody…
I know a couple of people who went to Oxbridge. I used to be quite resentful of them. They didn’t seem particularly smarter than anyone else. Just posh, disciplined and good at working the system with all its emphasis on time management and rote learning. “Critical thinking” classes for the bright and promising just seemed like a functional normie finishing school. (I’m evidently still bitter about my school days.)
Now, though, I feel sorry for those people.
I knew a few people that ended up at Cambridge. One guy I knew because he was a singer in a local band. Deep baritone Ian Curtis / Paul Banks voice. He was good. To my surprise, since we’d gotten to know each other at grungy bars and house parties, he was actually really well off and he became the only friend I had who could drive and had his own car. He also had a similar taste in music to me and so we went on quite a few road trips: to London to see TV On The Radio in 2007; to Manchester to see LCD Soundsystem in 2008.
He was genuinely intelligent and had a critical mind beyond his years but last I heard he was working in finance and, whilst endlessly popular at Cambridge, he’d become infamous for having a massive cocaine addiction. So well-known was this habit it now seemed to define him. Everyone knew him by his cocaine-pun nickname. I haven’t seen him since 2009.
Another one of my best friends at school ended up going to Cambridge as well. She had always wanted to go down that path and checked all the usual boxes on the way there. High achiever, sports captain, head girl, etc., etc. She put a lot of pressure on herself to get there. She was also one of the ones to re-sit some of her exams. She got nothing less than an A the first time round but somehow still didn’t get in and rather than settle for elsewhere she deferred a year, stayed on at college and went for the full house of A*s whilst racking up an excessive amount of UCAS points by getting more A Levels in more subjects than anyone else.
We reconnected once I moved to London two years ago. We hadn’t really spoken for eight years but when I found out she lived around the corner, we started to hang out again and I went to a house warming party she was having in early 2017.
The party was full of Cambridge alumni.
It was a good night but I will never forget the amount of drama that kicked off after midnight, when people had perhaps had a bit too much to drink. By 4am, there were tears and deep conversations everywhere, in every room, and everyone had the same problem: without the tick-box ladder of our education system to doggedly climb, having reached the top and without anywhere else to go, many were left in anticlimactic despair. They all explicitly blamed Cambridge for their distress — chewed up, spat out and left with an extraordinary amount of neuroses from the years of pressure. And this were the posh lot! It was hard not to be cynical about their whinging, as they were still able to exist more comfortably than most, but for all their excessive privilege they were nonetheless listless and with catastrophically low self-esteem.
No one ever talks about this. The accusations of too much pressure seem to be on secondary schools, putting teens through the wringer of SATs, GSCEs and A Levels and forcing them to map their lives out by 16. No one ever mentions just how toxic these “Russell Group” universities seem to be. The suggestion is: get more ethnic minorities in there, more working class kids… They’re failing in making opportunities for these kids…
Are those opportunities we want kids to have? Is it worth levelling to playing field to make such a shitshow more accessible?
I’d like to take anyone even thinking about going to Oxbridge on a tour of that Cambridge alumni party and its sea of broken 20-somethings.
The suggestion that more people should be allowed to go to Oxbridge feels dangerous to me. I don’t think we need more kids with eating disorders and drug habits. Dilute their reputation instead. Dissolve rather than diversify. Save these aspirational kids a world of pain and mental illness. Most would no doubt be much happier elsewhere.