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Mar 13 2010

On being a fellow of Pembroke college

For a period in my life I knew that if I ever ended up in the news the item would have started “Cambridge don, Dr Ian Hopkinson…” because I was a fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Oxford and Cambridge universities in the UK, are structured somewhat differently from other universities. In addition to the normal university departments that you would find in any university there are the colleges. The colleges have their own independent, and in many cases, very long existence. They are responsible for the housing and pastoral care of students (and academics), as well as teaching involving small groups. In some subjects they employ full-time lecturers but this is not generally the case in the natural sciences. Each college has a mixture of fellows and students from all subjects, in some ways the parallel is with members of a club. Other universities have apparent equivalents in their Halls of Residence and ‘colleges’ although these things are actually quite different in character.

Clearly Pembroke is the best of the colleges by any rational evaluation! Whilst I was in Cambridge it celebrated its 650th anniversary, although little if any of the original physical structure remains. The college features a chapel designed by Christopher Wren, behind some panels in one of the parlours are the scribblings and sketches by the workmen involved in the building. The ceiling of the Old Library is a fabulous, intricate 17th century plaster construction, I spent many long college meetings admiring it. Alfred Waterhouse was involved in some substantial re-building of the college in the late 19th century demolishing, with dynamite, the pre-existing medieval main hall in the process.

The list of alumni is rich with comedians (Peter Cook, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Eric Idle, Bill Oddie) and writers (Clive James, Ted Hughes), a little light on scientists although it does feature George Gabriel Stokes, Ray Dolby (inventor of the Dolby noise-reduction system) and John Sulston (Nobel Prize winner). Historically, there’s William Pitt the Younger, and Nicholas Ridley (martyred by the old enemy in Oxford). The wiki page gives a summary of the history, and an extended list of alumni.

Pembroke college was somewhat different from anything I had experienced previously and it introduced me to a whole range of social gaffes. From my initial purchase of my MA gown, where I hastily thrust my arms down the sown-up sleeves rather than out through the exit slits; to confusing the Master of Pembroke, Sir Roger Tomkys, former High Commissioner to Kenya with my pointless statement that I had bought my cutlery from Argos (he thought I meant the Greek island); to turning up one summer evening in very crumpled linen for dinner only to discover that it was a celebratory meal for the Drapers’ Company and I was under-dressed by at least an order of magnitude. Fortunately, as a fellow, I was allowed to walk on the grass, the public aren’t. There are no signs to this effect, because senior fellows thought they looked untidy.

As a fellow I received little in the way of cash, I was employed by the university as an Assistant Director of Research* and paid by the college to do a few hours small group teaching each week. Pembroke mainly paid me in food, drink and company. A fairly elderly medieval scholar was the college wine buyer and did an excellent job. Dinners were particularly fine after college meetings, starting in the parlour, for pre-dinner drinks, five courses with a different wine with each course after which we returned to the parlour for port and so forth, Bath Oliver biscuits (Oliver was a former fellow) and fruit eaten with silver knives and forks.  Most junior fellows seconded to serve in the parlour.  For a long period I never drank port that was younger than I was and I got a taste for Sauternes which I can no longer support. Mrs SomeBeans has never forgiven them for the goat’s cheese profiteroles.

As part of my job as fellow I was engaged in admissions interviews: one nervous fellow (me) interviewed fifteen nervous potential students for the Natural Sciences course. I remember having wet feet for most the morning, since I’d cycled in to college in a downpour. All but a couple of the students were predicted at least four A grades at A level, ultimately we were to take one or possibly two of the group I interviewed.

The colleges go to some length to make the admission system fair in relation to the background of the student, but to be honest the problem starts well before application. A vignette: my flatmate at Bristol University went to Harrow he was one of very few in his year *not* to apply to Oxford or Cambridge (Oxbridge), to the displeasure of the masters. I, from my respectable state comprehensive, was one of a handful to apply to Oxbridge. For my school, entry to Oxbridge was not a key performance indicator, it didn’t really have the knowledge or background to support applicants.

In a way the debate on access to Oxbridge misses the point: it takes outstanding students, has excellent resources in terms of cash and people and it produces excellent output. What can you learn from this setup? As a measure of pre-university performance it’s not great, we depend on written record and a few brief interviews. A real challenge would have been to take average students and see what we could do with them.

The best thing about college was my fellow fellows: they were bright, passionate about their work, always keen to talk about it. We met for lunch: classicists, modern linguists, historians, computer scientists, chemists, physicists, biologists, naturalists, engineers, English scholars talking about our work, the world and the etymology of the swearing of the American students over for summer schools. And in the usual college way we could wine and dine in our departmental colleagues colleges where the circle widened. It’s an oddity of most modern universities that the scope for meeting colleagues from different departments is actually rather limited. The college system in Cambridge satisfies that need in some style.

Footnotes
Top image from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pembroke_College_Cambridge.JPG
*The Assistant Director of Research is no where near as grand as it sounds, it is a position that lies between postdoctoral research assistant and lecturer and is filled in Cambridge by people who will be unrequited in their desire for a permanent position.

13 comments

1 ping

  1. Mark D

    Great insight

  2. VP

    I hankered after a spell in Oxford once, but was put off by my sixth form mistress, who told me it wouldn't suit me. I thought she was being a snob about my background and resented it, though I did heed her advice.

    2 decades later I ended up working in Oxford for a charity which sponsors scientific research and with access to the many of the privileges that Oxford can bestow and realised she was absolutely right. I have never been in such a schizophrenic place – the gulf between 'town' and 'gown' is astounding.

    However, I did enjoy my trip to Oxford yesterday to sit within the hallowed walls of the Botanic Garden.

  3. jfleming

    followed you on twitter for some time and RSS your blog. Now I understand who you are and the angle of your perspective. What a terrific honour to be at Pembroke. I was a minor fish in the old Sociology Anthropology department at Brunel. I had space in the boom cupboard and free photocopying. Enjoyed all that!

  4. SomeBeans

    @VP to be honest I think I might have had a lucky escape not getting in as an undergraduate. I'm not sure how I would have copied with being average/sub-average academically.

  5. Jamie

    Hey. Interesting post. Just having skimmed your comments: I'm sure you'd have coped OK at Oxford, and I don't know whether claiming it was a lucky escape is the right way to think about it.

    The tutorial system in Oxford (at least, in Engineering, which I teach), means that we get to really know each undergraduate. Anyone that is 'average/sub-average academically' gets a pretty well-tailored education as a result. I don't think many students would claim to feel sub-average when they leave, even if they did when they start.

  6. SomeBeans

    @jfleming in some ways I'm trying to take away some of the mystery of Cambridge. I know that in terms of my CV people will light upon my period there as a mark of something special but I don't see it that way (it's much easier to get in as a postdoc than an undergraduate)

    @jamie the point is that all of your students would have been pretty much top of the class in their school. They arrive at Oxford and, likely as not, find that compared to their new cohort they are most likely middle of the road. I can see this being a real blow to confidence.

  7. Jamie

    @SomeBeans I admit that it might be a knock to their confidence, but I don't think that's any reason to not want to go.

    It's pretty likely that people will end up in an environment surrounded by people smarter than themselves at some point anyway. And the truth of the matter is that being surrounded by smart people is good for your education. If you're consistently at the top of your academic tree, there's no challenge, no motivation to work harder or push yourself.

    Being surrounded by clever people, as most of us know, is fun!

  8. Ian Wright

    Hey, I'm famous!

    As said Old Harrovian flatmate I'll expand a little.

    There was definite pressure to apply to Oxbridge for anyone who was even slightly intelligent and the only places where there was any help or support in applying e.g. my Chemistry teacher organized a trip to Oxford to look round with an ex-pupil.

    I got very annoyed with it all, even as I was leaving my house master said "If you get 3 As will you come back and apply for Oxbridge" – a few years later I worked for Oxford University Press and I gather, via the grapevine, that even that made my old teacher excited by the proximity to the uni.

    To put this in a little more context I would say that there was the possibility of my getting 3 As (Maths, Chemistry, Physics) but by no means certain(I got a disappointing A,B,C) and I had dropped Further Maths after one year.

    There are a few very clever people at Harrow on scholarships who make up a good proportion of the Oxbridge entrants but there's no doubt they do know how to play the system.

    Having lived and worked with them I would say that SomeBeans is at least as clever as most, if not all, of the people at Harrow who went to Oxbridge.

    The number of Oxbridge entrants was something they were very keen on promoting.

    This was a while ago when Harrow was slightly less ruinously expensive and there were a few relatively normal people there – my Dad managed a furniture shop.

    Having said that I know of a least one person who wasn't at all academically gifted but got into Oxford by playing sport for the Uni and making a donation – I think they paid for a new library or something, several millions anyway.

    I absolutely hated Harrow and am not in touch with anyone from then and wouldn't even remotely consider sending my own children there even if I could afford it, which I can't. For balance I think my brother quite enjoyed it but then he ended up joining the army… sport, army etc also taken rather seriously…

  9. SomeBeans

    @IanWright – hello! Thanks for the expansion on your experiences.

  10. Austin Elliott

    Lots of old Etonians and Harrovians in my graduating year at Bristol (early mid 80s) – never struck me as unusually bright. I remember we had one who didn't graduate as he had to miss a year after nearly managing to blow himself up doing "holiday" chemistry experiments on the family estate. Hmm…

    Ian Wright's comments about "pressure to apply to Oxbridge" would certainly apply to the private school I attended in Oxford three decades or so ago. The assumption was that anyone who the school "rated" would be applying to Oxbridge, and the numbers getting in there were statistic the school cared the most about.

    I loathed the private school myself, but the older I get the more I am struck by how potentially "well connected" it made you, were you interested in such things. My academic colleages who did not have the (dubious?) benefit of a South of England private education are still often amazed that I know/went to the same school as a large cast of public figures / academics / doctors / lawyers / journalists / writers / directors / TV execs etc etc.

    Of course, if you attend a private school AND go to Oxbridge as an undergraduate you get a double dose of this "gilded circle" effect. Anyway. it is hard not to feel that the UK is anything but a meritocracy.

  11. SomeBeans

    @AustinElliott Ian W. and I graduated from Bristol in '91! I think the point about being well-connected is a good one. It's difficult to see how to overcome this problem by improving the connectivity of those outside the gilded circles. I can't help thinking that electronic means are the way to go, I'm better connected now via twitter than I've ever been.

  12. Ian Wright

    I think the point about being potentially well connected is a very good one – I periodically realise I was at school with someone in the news, or, actually even at this stage more likely, their son. It can be quite interesting looking on Facebook to see who people are connected to…

    I'm pretty sure that there are a lot of people working in the City who wouldn't be if they weren't an OH. I suspect that even I might have got the odd interview earlier in my career on the basis that they wanted to hear about Harrow…

    On further reflection this all starts even earlier at prep school – even most(all?) of the scholars at Harrow had come through the prep school system – where there are similar pressures but aimed at getting to the public school of choice rather than Oxbridge. I wonder how many applicants from non fee paying schools there are for scholarships? (For info there are various degrees of scholarships from full, i.e. all the fees, through various lower percentages. There's still a fair amount to pay for uniforms etc however.)

    Incidentally we had a excellent local grammar school, which I got into and my parents turned down the place, where I'm sure I would have done better than at Harrow (not that I agree with grammar schools…)

  13. SomeBeans

    @IanWright from a physics mindset there must be an interesting bit of statistics in working out how important your parents (and their occupations) are in determining your future.

    I'm definitely my parent's son in this regard (they both worked in scientific occupations).

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