Every year since I graduated twenty-one years ago, the phone rings with an Oxford prefix. Nearly all of us who matriculated in 1997 get this call, and each year we want it to be over before it has begun. I seem to be almost alone amongst my contemporaries in always picking up, despite knowing how much this call will leave me wanting.
In my imagination, the conversation goes something like this:
“Hi, it’s Ben here, I’m a student at your college. We both know why I’m phoning, don’t we?”
“Sure do! Happy to pony up some cash. What else do you want to talk about?”
“Well I’m a bit hungover, and I’m manning the phones because it’s better paid than my other holiday jobs. But if you have any funny stories of Oxford in the 90s, or any career tips for someone who can’t really be arsed with 25 applications full of BS, I’m always curious. How did you figure this all out?”
In reality, not-Ben just says that he spends a lot of time in the library, expresses no interest in my time at college, and wants to know what I have done with my career for exactly 10 minutes, before he spits out the request for donations. I don’t like not-Ben. Let’s forget about him for a minute.
“Well Ben, I definitely haven’t figured anything out, albeit adulting has been forced upon me. Oxford in the 90s was as much fun as I’ve ever had. We went to clubs that are probably long since shut, and we didn’t know who would be there because we had no phones. They always played Reach for the Stars at the end of the night in Filth, and everyone sang along. You had to be there. Apparently young people are very abstemious, so you probably haven’t thrown up all over college yet, unless you just did Mods. In 1998, we staged a tuition fee “protest sleepover” in exam schools. We weren’t sure what it would achieve either, but it was fun, and we wanted to give everyone the same opportunity that we had. After all, £1000 a year in tuition fees was just outrageous, right? I couldn’t really justify writing half an essay and turning up at my tute pretending the other half blew away in the wind if I were paying for it. I never jumped off Magdalen Bridge though, because that was right in the middle of the rowing season. Also, South Park was everywhere and Canadians didn’t seem to mind”.
The reality of being a student in 2021 – even without the C word – is that you don’t fuck around with your studies if you are paying at least £30,000 for them. You talk about the library, because you do spend quite a lot of time there. You have to get a 2:1, because you have to make a return on your investment, or failing that, pursue and academic career and quite possibly never pay back the money at all.
I want to reassure Ben. I don’t think not-Ben needs reassuring. He seems pretty sure about his career moves.
Ben though, he is me. The guy or girl who feels a bit crushed by the pressure, thinks it’s going to be really hard to get a good job, and is filled with a hopeless sense of inadequacy – as one is when one spends many nights talking to some of the most intelligent people in the country, if not the world. I had no perspective on who I was competing for jobs with; most of the population did not graduate from Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, or in fact at all. They turned out to be instantly impressed, and all seemed to suffer from the confirmation bias of perceiving my work to be brilliant. It is a mystery, since I am still sure I got into The Good Place by mistake.
I want to tell him how much all of it fades away; the insecurity, but also the oyster of novelty and possibility. When he is 42, the highs of life are not glittering moments of joy and fulfilment, they are just finding someone intelligent to talk to. The lows are of course funerals – although they do have better food, and are far more cathartic than any teen existential crisis. I want to retrieve that depth of feeling, and Ben needs to fix that for me. Then again, other alumni disagree entirely:
“I got a call from someone who said he wanted to hear about my time at college. I was like ‘FFS it was over 20 years ago’ and whilst if I was an 85-year-old lonely widow I might appreciate a trip down Memory Lane, I am currently a busy 41 year old who frankly doesn’t have time for nostalgic chit chat with a random student who doesn’t actually give a damn.”
It is also disappointing to find that the apparent interest in career choices is a part of the script that the colleges are not necessarily using for the benefit of the students:
“They’ve stopped calling me. On about the fourth occasion, I chatted to a very nice young man who had an interest in Drama and was reading Law, so he was clearly well selected. We had a pleasant chat before the inevitable question came. I explained that I was very unlikely to ever have the means to help. That seems to have done the trick.”
It is unclear to me what this method of fundraising is hoping to achieve. Every university seems to do it, but I often think they should just get sales people who specialise in cold calling, not students whom I hold to different standards. I want it to be more genuine, I want to understand what plans the college has to improve both life and academia for its students. Perhaps it would also help persuade those who, as they say “can think of better things to give money to than a rich college”. It is easier to maintain excellence than to create it, and I therefore view it as a more effective use of my funds. I would give the college money even if Ben told me his favourite way of relaxing was a bit of smack on a Sunday night before he goes to watch a cock fight.
I think not-Ben said he goes for walks around Christchurch meadow.
Come back, Ben! Share with me! Let me drink from the yard of youth again! Paint me and put me in your attic if you must! I’ll give you money!