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Ed Southgate looks into how Bristol became the alternative to Oxbridge and how this still affects student life.

Despite being a relatively young Russell Group University, being awarded its Royal Charter in 1909, the University of Bristol has acquired a great number of reputations. It has a reputation for world-leading research, a reputation for being highly-selective, and a reputation for having a successful alumni network. But perhaps one of the greatest reputations is that it has become a haven for so-called “Oxford rejects”.

It is not unusual to hear this phrase around campus when in discussion about the university generally, despite the universities best efforts to minimise the association. But, as such a young university, how did this term grow around campus? Where did the association come from? Is the association justified?

The University first became associated with the University of Oxford in 1872, 37 years prior to it being awarded its Royal Charter. The headmaster of Clifton College, John Percival, wrote to the colleges at Oxford relaying his concerns regarding the distinct lack of university culture in the Bristol provinces. Subsequent to this, in 1873, Percival wrote The Connection of Universities and the Great Towns, which was sent to the governing bodies of the Oxford colleges.

Benjamin Jowett, the then-Master of Baliol College, received this pamphlet well and soon became a significant figure in the establishment of the University of Bristol, an example of this being that he subscribed £300 to the project.

Jowett also, in 1974, led a meeting in the Victoria Rooms which attracted support from the Fry family, who became financially influential. In this way, the basis of the University of Bristol’s establishment and birth has links with the University of Oxford.

The most visual link between Bristol and Oxford, however, is its architecture. As aforementioned, the university received its royal charter in 1909; with this new status, however, it was decided there needed to be a new level of architectural elegance.

Indeed, in her book Victorian Buildings in Bristol, Claire Crick says it was decided that “the existing buildings were not sufficiently outstanding”. This issue was to be dealt with by the sons of Henry Overton Wills.

The wealthy Wills family earned their fortunes through a tobacco importing company – ‘W.D. & H.O Wills’, which became one of the founding companies of the ‘Imperial Tobacco Company’. Using this wealth, the architects George Herbert Oatley and George Churchus Lawrence were designed to build a new campus.

This is the campus that we now know and admire as the Clifton campus. Indeed, a great many of the buildings in this precinct were commissioned by the Wills family, with some being named after them, including Wills Hall, H.H. Wills Physics Theatre, and the centre piece that is the Wills Memorial building. All of these have been said to resemble the architecture that would be found at the University of Oxford.

The reason for this is simple. The Wills brothers who commissioned these new buildings commissioned them with the intent to rival the beauty of Oxford’s buildings. Therefore, the university was both born in connection with Oxford, and developed as a rival to Oxford’s aesthetic, which may have opened up potential for comparisons to be made.

Wills Hall, one of the many student halls of residence in Stoke Bishop, is generally seen as most in imitation of Oxford out of all the student halls in Bristol. Not only does is its design reminiscent of the Oxbridge style, being built around a quad, but its traditions in having a formal with gowns every Friday is particularly in line with the Oxford ways.

One student currently studying at Keble College, Oxford said: “We have two to three formals a week, always on Sundays. We have to wear our gowns, but we can wear normal clothes underneath.

“The Chaplain reads Grace at the beginnings or, on Sundays, the choir sing Grace. The tutors, warden and staff sit at the high table and everyone has to stand when they leave.”

Bryony Chellew, a current first-year student studying English Literature and resident of Wills Hall, described the formal of Wills Hall in a way not dissimilar to that of Keble College: “You have to wear your gown and wear black tie. We have to stand up when the Warden comes in and can only sit down once he has said Benedicto Benedictur. He says this at the start and the end of every formal.

“On special formals, like Christmas and Valentine’s Day, we have readings and guest speakers. Also, for the Christmas formal we all sang hymns which was super fun.”

Bryony also drew attention to ‘pennying’. This drinking game is a rich tradition within the University of Oxford, and seems to have caught on well within the University of Bristol too.

Moreover, the admissions process of the University of Bristol creates a demographic which some argue is indicative of an ‘Oxford reject’ culture.

“Private schools notoriously aim to have their students sent to Oxbridge, and will encourage the majority of them to apply”, said one first year student who wished to remain anonymous. “A disproportionate number of privately-educated students come to the University of Bristol – more so than other Russell Group universities – which is probably because it is Oxford-like in its character”.

The University of Bristol has 61.4% of its students from a state school background, which, although more than Oxford at 55.7%, represents a slightly lower amount than that of Cambridge University at 61.9%. Approximately 7% of children are educated in the private sector.

Additionally, Bristol University has recently been in receipt of criticism for its ‘Bristol Scholars Scheme’, which seeks to widen its accessibility for poorer students, as one third of offers has gone to students privately educated.

Could it be that the apparent divide between state and privately-educated students is perpetuating the Universities connotations with Oxbridge?

The connection with Oxford tradition propels also into the territory of formal academic dress. Academic dress involves the gowns used at graduation ceremonies; at graduation ceremonies for the University of Bristol, students’ gowns comprise a mixture of those worn by students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

It appears that various aspects of university life connect Bristol with the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The main question, however, must be whether this is adequate grounds to think of the University of Bristol as a place for those turned down by Oxford.

In 2004, Bristol’s Vice-Chancellor at the time, Professor Eric Thomas, had to warn both teachers and parents alike to stop viewing the University as a back-up plan if Oxbridge does not go the intended way. Speaking to The Telegraph, he said: “They are places in their own right.”

With this came concerns with viewing Bristol through an Oxford perspective: “Even the most balanced parents don’t seem to be able to suppress their negative emotions in front of their children and the term ‘Oxbridge reject’ rears its ugly head. Every year 25,000 or so of our brightest young people apply to Oxbridge and there are only 7,000 places.”

Should we be concerning ourselves and our perceptions so much with Bristol’s similarities with Oxbridge? Or should we be viewing our experiences at the University of Bristol in isolation? Are Bristol’s connotations as a home to ‘Oxford-rejects’ an unnecessarily negative portrayal of the student body?


Do you feel that Bristol is an ‘Oxford reject’? Let us know in the comments or via social media links below. 

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