Not All Work And No Play At Oxford

By Tan Soo Chuen. Published in the Sunday Star, 24 August 1997. Some background here. Annotations (in the footnotes at the end of the article) are mine.

So you got a place in Oxford. You have achieved your life-time this is the moment ambition you have been waiting for. So you float around on Cloud Nine, and revel in the glory of the moment until you realise that you are actually going to spend the next three or four years in Oxford, and do not have the slightest idea what it is going to be like. Being happy in an environment is really important and it is a good idea to know a little about the place which will be your home for the next few years of your life.

What is Oxford really like? With its reputation, one would expect to have to work really hard there. For us kiasu Malaysians, so used to our competitive academic environment, it is quite disconcerting to know that we will be competing with among the best students from around the world. In a way, Oxford does work its students quite hard. The fact that each term is only eight weeks long (meaning we only study 24 weeks a year) does not mean much, as we do more within that time than students at other universities do in 10 or 12 weeks. And for Malaysian students, especially those studying in the UK for the first time, the initial transition period can be quite unnerving.

Firstly, do not expect to be immersed gently into your course – Oxford does not have any real orientation programme to speak about – you are thrown into the deep end and expected to swim. Before you even find out where the library is, you might already find yourself buried in work and having to meet deadlines.

(Khai Yin’s notes: The most I could recognize – Alex Ong Tiang Chuan, Azmir Zain, Sarah Mastura, Chen Tien Yue, Adilah Junid. Can’t remember the rest!)

For most students, “work” each week consists of a list of books which you have to read, and an essay to hand in, after which you meet your tutor and go over your work with him or her. Since you usually have several tutorials a week, and each tutor might give you more than one essay to write, you could end up writing up to four essays a week.

For science students, the reading and essay writing is not so voluminous, but you have to attend many more lectures, plus practicals, projects, and classes which take up a lot of your time. While arts and humanities students are expected to spend about 35-40 hours a week in the library working on essays and ploughing through reading lists; science students can expect up to 30 hours a week of lectures, practicals and other structured work, plus many more hours spent doing assignments, reading, etc. Studying in Oxford is no honeymoon((I remembered having given up trying to understand the course material during the term; the serious work would only start during the term breaks.)).

It is thus not uncommon for students to find themselves lagging behind in their work. Coming from A-levels or other pre-university courses (except perhaps STPM), you will see the obvious difference in the amount of effort and time you are actually expected to put into your work.

“…do not expect to be immersed gently into your course – you are thrown into the deep end and expected to swim.”

But listening to the horror stories about the work we do will only give you half the picture an Oxford education. True, you are expected to do lots of work on your own. However, the flip side to this is that you are the master of your own time, and it is really up to you to decide how much you want to do, and when you want to do it. Also, you set your own priorities, because no one will breathe down your neck if you decide not to do any work at all((I had struggled mightily with the coursework and so I didn’t spend much time doing anything else. Looking back, I’d perhaps settled for a lower grade in exchange for time spent on pursuing other interests.)).

This flexibility actually takes a lot of pressure off you. It allows you to fall behind once in a while, and to catch up later when you have more time. You can decide to what depth or breadth you intend to cover a particular subject matter, based on how much work you intend to do that week. You can drop particular topics you do not feel comfortable with, and concentrate on others that you like. Since you are meeting your tutor one-to-one((This also means that you can’t BS your tutor – if you don’t put in the work, it shows!)), or at most with two others, it is very easy for you to discuss previous work with him or her, without worrying about holding back a class.

But academic work alone does not make an Oxford education what it is. The system is designed such that students have time to take an active part in college and University life, to develop their skills and talents in various areas, and above all, to grow as individuals. Undoubtedly, Oxford students do have to work harder than most, but they play hard as well, and do both with panache.

How about life outside work? Because of the flexibility of the system, many students are able to balance an amazing number of activities and responsibilities at University. Indeed, Oxford University is a place which allows you to pursue any interest you may have. For one who is interested in the culture and social background of other countries and peoples, there are organisations such as the Asia Pacific Affairs Society and European Affairs Society. If social work interests you, The One World Group, containing such diverse organisations as Amnesty International and Third World First, will gladly welcome you to help with their projects. You can write for student newspapers such as the Cherwell or the Oxford Student, or row for your college team, and perhaps earn a blue by rowing for the University. You can even learn German or pick up ballroom-dancing, or painting. And since Oxonians tend to be passionate about what they do, they tend to do them well. For example, student drama in Oxford is of a very high quality — auditions are competitive, and performances are usually very impressive.

Nevertheless, you do not have to belong to a formal organization to have fun. Oxford is a place which is very much alive, thanks to its young, ever-changing population. The character of the city owes much to the University many cinemas, pubs, theatres and night-spots have sprouted over time to cater for the University crowd((Best times of my life – having a pint with Suyash at the Bullingdon Arms on Cowley… and samosas thereafter)). Every night, students flock to college pubs to “chill out” and socialise, flocking out onto the streets when the pubs close at llpm. For the many Malaysians who do not drink, there is a tendency to feel left out of the pub culture. This is true, but nothing stops you from just entering the pub to have a soft drink and a nice chat. Something much closer to the hearts of Malaysian students is food. College food is heavily subsidised1, so it is a good idea to have most of your meals here, even if, you have to put up with lots of cheese, potatoes and boiled vegetables everyday. The quality of the food varies from college to college, but you can always get yourself invited to other colleges if you cannot stand the food at your own. If you are totally sick of Western fare, the ubiquitous kebab van is a saviour2. These vans can be found all over Oxford, and are the favourite haunts of late-night partyers. Kebabs are basically pieces of pitta bread stuffed with chicken, beef (all halal) or tuna, salad and plenty of mayonnaise or chilli sauce. At two pounds plus (RM9) per kebab, they are within the price range of the generally broke student population, but you risk writhing in bed in pain the next day. For some, this is part of the attraction – personally, I keep them at arm’s length. If you are feeling indulgent, there are many curry and balti houses in Oxford, along with pizza places, fast-food joints and Chinese takeaways.

Is there a minority experience in Oxford? This is not an easy question to answer, as prejudices are often subtle. However, if you go around with a chip on your shoulder, expecting everyone to treat you differently, you are going to be very miserable, and will experience many imaginary instances of discrimination. Racism is hardly ever an issue in Oxford – personally, I have not experienced it at all. In an environment where the pursuit of knowledge, and the development of the individual are the main preoccupations, differences in background, whether they be ethnic, religious or social, become quite inconsequential. Indeed, I feel that it is a real privilege to be able to talk to and learn from students from all over the world, and to count them among my close friends.

Does one ever get home-sick? Between your work and your social activities, there is often no time to even think about it. However, during the times when you are, your Malaysian friends are always there to help you out. Malaysians in Oxford are generally very friendly – we are a small group, so we are very close, and always watch out for each other. The Malaysia Club always makes you feel welcome, and gives you a sense of belonging but friendship transcends being merely fellow club members.

So, if you are coming up to Oxford this October do not worry – chances are that you will really like it here.

Oxford is not a busy, bustling city like London, but it has its own unique charm. There is a lot more to an Oxford education than a paper qualification. Enjoy your time spent here to the fullest!

  1. My friends asked me why I loved Mansfield so much, and my answer was: free food! []
  2. Ahmed’s on High Street served the best doner kebabs! []