‘It is an academic Disneyland’
Simon Mee, doctoral student at Oxford University, on his working week in university
I wake early and step out of my door on to Merton Street, an old lane full of cobble stones. It is the first day of fine weather in Oxford for a long time. As a first-year doctoral student in economic history at Oxford University, I will be spending this week researching and preparing for an upcoming archive trip to Germany.
I look around. There is something exceptional about the way the sunlight reflects upon the city’s architecture. Many of the buildings are built from stone quarried from the Cotswolds, lending a golden hue to the streets and pathways.
At Oxford there is no central “campus”. Instead students belong to a college, of which there are more than 40 scattered across the city. Some colleges are centuries old, others quite modern. I am a student at University College, the oldest one. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, scientist Stephen Hawking and even a young Bill Clinton have all studied within its walls.
Next stop, the social sciences library. I spend hours hunkered over books while sending emails to finalise arrangements for a trip to Frankfurt next week. The days of study can be long, but I count myself lucky.
“It is the most flower-like time in one’s life,” Oscar Wilde once quipped, reflecting on his years studying at Oxford. “One sees the shadow of things in silver mirrors.”
Others are not so fortunate. The city has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the UK. As students walk to lectures and tutorials, they pass several people covered by blankets in the cold.
I help out with a local food run for homeless people every second Monday. Tonight a small team of four walk around the city, giving sandwiches and hot drinks to those who need them the most. In a city characterised by utter privilege, it is a sobering experience.
I return to Merton Street and study in my bedroom until midnight, eventually falling asleep exhausted.
At 8.30am I meet my girlfriend, Ani, at Zappi’s Café on St Michael’s Street, which easily serves the best coffee in town,before hitting the library again.
While Oxford has a central library, the Bodleian, dating back to 1602, there are dozens of smaller ones around the place often devoted to a specific discipline. It’s an academic Disneyland of sorts; each morning you simply cycle to the one that suits your daily workload.
I spend today working on my thesis. My topic looks at how the West German central bank utilised the cultural memory of the 1922-3 German hyperinflation as a means to influence inflation expectations during the turbulent decade of the 1970s.
Even today, politicians and journalists cite the German “aversion” to inflation. My research looks a bit closer, and asks whether this antipathy to inflation was, at least in part, constructed by policy makers in post-war West Germany for their own ends. But it is nearly 5pm already.
I rush to Nuffield College to attend an economic and social history seminar. Many of the attendees are already suited-up for a formal dinner afterwards at Merton College (conveniently, not too far from my front door). Though quite fancy, many formal dinners are heavily subsidised by the colleges themselves. Tonight’s three-course meal costs about €6.30. Every college has a dining hall, lined with long benches and large paintings of dour, irritated-looking men staring down at you. But the beauty of the Oxford college system is that you get to talk and hang out with people outside your discipline, and this often leads to interesting conversations.