Illustration by Lizzy Nightingale

I got some coffee with some friends a few weeks ago, and our conversation turned to what we got up to over the summer. It turns out that they had been staying on another college friend’s yacht for a few days – casually thrown in as if this was a relatable activity. When I think yachts I think of some multi-millionaire’s plaything. The sort of thing that the likes of Philip Green spend their leisure time on whilst his employees live off poverty wages. Anyhow, I nodded politely and said nothing. After all – and this may not surprise you –  ‘rah where my baccy’ type ultra-posh people don’t tend to hang out with me. Apparently this is just what normal people do here at Oxford. 

Not for the first time, it was a reminder of how standard classifications of the class system are inapplicable here, and you are automatically a couple of rungs lower down the ranks in OX1 than you would be back at home. Of course, going yachting is far from the most nefarious example of class privilege and I wasn’t offended or anything of the sort, but it did get me thinking about the implications of how students spend their vacations in different ways due to their different circumstances. 

There is this subtle expectation about Oxford that the students here will be endowed with significant cultural capital (a phrase which I use here to mean the knowledge, experiences and tastes which give social leverage), and the sort of cultural capital that will have come from being well travelled. It isn’t just something which permeates conversations with friends here, but also the cultural / creative scene and even the expectations of university tutors. Furthermore, for students who are so inclined, there is also a competition to secure the most prestigious financial and legal internships (as I’m sure that many are all too aware); with all that, time during the vacations is planned out rather nicely indeed. 

Meanwhile there’s this other side to Oxford, where many students have to spend their vacations doing jobs which are not particularly well paid (i.e minimum wage) in order to support their studies and families, and thus may not have these opportunities.

Some people would point out that having a normal job as a young person is actually the respectable option. Indeed, a common response to the perceived lack of ‘real life’ experience which some people have is to say that they should get a bit of experience doing a minimum wage job. In addition, if we begrudgingly accept that many future politicians pass through this university, you would hope that these people have seen ‘the real world’ and know how to deal with people from all walks of life. In essence, it’s character building.

I do take a bit of concern with that idea though, as it implies that all minimum wage work is challenging, and often uncomfortable. However, I don’t think this should be accepted as the norm. When I worked in a bar before university my colleagues and I got used to a fair bit of sexism, racism and just general drunken idiocy, and on top of that I developed a 3 month-long cough as a result of operating the glass washer and inhaling so much steam. I don’t want to force that upon people without question, but rather advocate for improving standards in the workplace. Then again, if a ‘future politician’ goes through something similar then they might actually accept the importance of changing the world of work for the better. 

I’ll admit that I’m rather fortunate here at Oxford that I’m able to undertake fully-funded internships during the vacs in sectors where it can be typically difficult to be well paid: charity, heritage and higher education. I’ve also made some extra money from journalism here and there now that I’ve had experience doing student journalism. I appreciate this is not a situation that a lot of people who can’t solely rely on the bank of mum and dad find themselves in, however. So many routes into the creative sector in particular are difficult to access for those who cannot afford to undertake unpaid internships and get that oh-so-valuable prior experience.

Ultimately then, the vacations are when we are no longer all students at the same university studying the same courses, staying in the same accommodation and eating the same questionable hall food. It’s a reminder that, once we’ve donned our sub fuscs for the final time for graduation, there will be those who go through life with a safety net to support them, and those who won’t.