Including You’re On Mute and In Absentia

It’s always been a subject of great bemusement when I’ve been asked by earnest and well-meaning southerners how I have managed the adjustment from living in the North to studying at Oxford.  

The question is: what vastly different experiences do these people expect me to have had? It’s something nobody who has asked the question has ever been able to answer.  

Certainly, it is true that my childhood home is considerably cheaper than it would be if it was in London, and that my journey down to Oxford is considerably harder (and more expensive) than if I could just jump on the Chiltern Line. But the school I went to, the family I grew up in, and the streets I walk down, are all the same as the schools, families and streets I have visited in the South. And, walking into my college’s hall for the first time, the southern students around me seemed every bit as impressed as I was. 

Although none of us should take ourselves too seriously, once or twice this line of questioning has strayed into the offensive – such as when a non-Oxford student visiting a mutual friend asked earnestly upon hearing my ‘Geordie’ accent, what it was like ‘growing up in a council house.’ Truthfully, I didn’t grow up in a council house and, if I had, I imagine it would have been exactly the same as growing up in a council house somewhere in London. I’m also not, as it happens, from Newcastle. 

The real discrepancy between North and South (and more generally, London and Everywhere Else) is policy – a matter brought to the fore by recent deliberations over the future of HS2. News that my neighbouring MP Mr Sunak is terminating the much-anticipated high-speed line at Birmingham, rather than continuing the embattled project to its redacted finale at Manchester, has provoked criticism by public figures from Andy Burnham to George Osborne, who have rightly derided the idea as everything from creating a chasm in opportunity to an economic disaster. The reason for the cancellation? Too much money spent on unnecessary tunnelling to appease the aesthetical whims of landed Oxfordshire pensioners. 

Making the six hour odyssey between home and Oxford twice a term, I am intimately acquainted with the ruinous state of England’s railways – and the poor condition of Northern rail in particular. To travel by train in modern Britain is to spend astronomical sums for the pleasure of sitting (or often standing) for hours on end, enduring constant and soul-crushing delays, followed by a long wait or frantic dash for a connection that may, or may not, arrive. 

Crammed in the confines of a crowded carriage tumbling towards Oxford two Michaelmasses ago, a friendly Polish student gave me the benefit of his international perspective. 

‘This is ridiculous,’ he said, elbow in my face. ‘My flight was cheaper than this!’ 

This isn’t a uniquely Northern phenomenon (how long do we think the work on Oxford Station is going to take?) but the North does undoubtedly bear the brunt. For months now, Newcastle’s Metro network, which was ahead of its time when it first opened 1980, has been running a skeleton service as a result of outdated rolling stock that has gone unreplaced. Can you imagine the same being allowed to happen on the London Underground?

Critics are right that the current version of HS2 isn’t a silver bullet to Britain’s infrastructure problems, and I am under no illusion that its completion might immediately improve the quality – and cost – of my own North-South journey. However, its construction would undoubtedly add much-needed capacity to our beleaguered railway system, alleviating traffic on outdated local lines, and therefore making intra-regional transport between towns and cities quicker, and more regular. For those of us who spend our lives travelling from one end of England to another, journeys on infamously congested stretches like the Midlands and West Yorkshire would be expedited, making movement from region-to-region much faster, and thus reducing pressure across the national network as a whole. Perhaps most importantly, the completion of HS2 would challenge the culture of obstruction and obfuscation that stifles these ambitious projects in their cradle – a culture that makes all of us poorer, and leaves the North, in particular, lagging behind.  

There are also the economic benefits – to the tune of over £100 billion. Connecting London, Birmingham and Manchester to a single high-speed chain seems an obvious step towards growth, improving supply chains and simplifying travel between our most productive cities. More widely, improving connectivity makes locales further from metropolitan areas a much more viable prospect for businesses and families to set-up shop, ‘levelling-up’ underperforming communities better than any Treasury campus or civil service ‘hub’ ever could. The case, as better people have made it, is overwhelming. 

And yet, after years of delays and deliberations and redactions, the fabled project of the century will finally be put to pasture – the North’s 15 million be-damned. A network once touted to connect England top-to-bottom will be relegated to a mere 140 mile stretch from New Street to Euston, and those of us fated to use trains elsewhere will continue to suffer as a result. 

Whether HS2 is resurrected or not, it is clear that, as far as Westminster is concerned, the North is an afterthought – and no matter how many government MPs we elect, our regional interests will always be subordinated, even at the national expense. 

And is it any wonder why? For many people, the North seems to be a foreign country and, until these bizarre notions are dispelled, it seems unlikely that my journey – or anyone else’s – will be improving anytime soon. 

In Absentia

A few weeks ago, the final degree ceremony of 2023 took place. For many, it would have been a happy event overcast by months of disruption and frustration. 

This summer, strikes by the University and College Union (UCU) meant that thousands of undergraduates across 145 British universities ended their studies without a degree – their theses unmarked, and their exams ungraded. 

As a rusticated student, I thankfully avoided the chaos that affected my peers, many of whom were told just days before their graduation ceremonies that they would not be able to graduate at all. Had I not suspended my studies, then I would have been counted among many of my compatriots who were forced to cancel hotels, rearrange plans, and try to salvage graduate jobs. 

Does anyone think this is good enough? Blame aside, the Higher Education Act of 2004 means students are now customers – and can anyone affected by this debacle really say they are happy paying full-price for this substandard product?

You’re On Mute

Working with current Oxbridge applicants, the absurdity of extending online interviews for undergraduate admissions for at least another five years has become even more striking. Many sixth formers I have spoken to have described their concern and frustration at having to engage with admissions tutors online, missing the chance to travel to Oxford and spend a few days in the coveted shoes of an undergraduate – something I thoroughly enjoyed as an applicant. Others have complained that the digital format is stifling, making the ebb-and-flow of conversation difficult, and unnatural. 

Dons say this policy is a step towards social mobility, but I am not so sure. Applicants from poorer or more geographically remote backgrounds might certainly struggle with travel costs, but does this mean they should be denied the opportunity to visit the city and lose the benefit of speaking to their tutors in-person? With an endowment of over £1.3 billion, perhaps the University could consider a means-tested subsidy to help get these applicants into Oxford, where their school can’t step-in? That seems a better solution than worsening the admissions process all round.