A man in a toga on a bike passing by a campus
© Luis Grañena

I hadn’t been to Oxford in years, so when I visited recently I felt like a time-traveller. Walking around, I kept recalling the university I had first encountered as an undergraduate 25 years ago this month. I found myself thinking things like, “I’m walking through Christ Church Meadow checking my emails!” Back in the day, students didn’t even have telephones in their rooms.

Oxford works hard to look timeless. If you stand in the average college quad at night, you can’t tell by looking around whether the year is 1613 or 2013. Yet in fact the university has changed, quite quickly. The Oxford I knew – shot through with sexual harassment, racism, dilettantism and sherry – has been replaced by something quite professional and money-conscious.

It wasn’t very hard to get into Oxford in my day, as almost all students – whether from private or state schools – were drawn from the small British upper and upper-middle class. Moreover, most were men. Still, we’d all needed luck to survive the rather random admissions process. For instance, one tutor I knew unapologetically favoured tall, blond public school types.

Once you’d got in, little effort was expected. Safe in the knowledge that you could put Oxford on your CV for ever, you had three years to enjoy this magical place. Most students I knew spent their energy trying to grow up, make friends, drink beer, play sport and find love. A survey in my time showed that the average undergraduate worked 20 hours a week during term-time – which meant just 24 weeks a year.

Often an entire week’s workload consisted of writing one shortish essay (good preparation for being a columnist). Some of my essays were so shoddy that when I reread them before my final exams, I almost wrote to my old tutors to apologise. Many tutors didn’t care anyway. Some had got their jobs in bygone amateur days, didn’t have a PhD, never published academic papers and lived off sherry. The one-on-one tutorials allowed them great discretion. A tutor in my college was known for exposing himself to some students, and trying to recruit others to the intelligence services. Another harassed so many female students that finally action was taken: he was banned from tutoring women one-on-one.

Political correctness was not rampant then. At meetings of the undergraduate junior common room, if a woman tried to speak, it was customary for men to chant: “Get your tits out for the lads!” A Sikh student elicited the cry (which nobody challenged): “They’re letting in towelheads now!” Homophobia was taken for granted. Any complaints about these traditions were treated as evidence of humourlessness. All this might seem like ancient history, except that many of today’s British politicians – David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Michael Gove, George Osborne – were Oxford contemporaries or near-contemporaries of mine.

Oxford was an ivory tower then, a timeless place, removed from the modern world. This timelessness had engendered timeless authors such as Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. At its best, it also encouraged a life of the mind free of contemporary concerns or fads. Marxism and postmodernism barely penetrated Oxford. A tutorial about John Stuart Mill was entirely about Mill, and not an argument about Thatcherism. Oxford had educated Thatcher (and most other recent British prime ministers) and yet it felt apolitical.

Every now and then, the tutorial system worked brilliantly: an hour’s conversation with a wonderful thinker from which you emerged with new understanding. You could leave Oxford in my day having learnt nothing except how to bluff your way in a plausible accent while underinformed; or you could leave transformed by the best student-to-staff ratio on earth.

Things are more serious now. Wandering around my old college last month, I marvelled at the Chinese, Russian and German surnames at the bottom of the staircases: Oxford is being intellectually globalised. Today’s students work harder to get in, and then tend to treat Oxford as the first stage of their working lives. Many visit the careers service in their first term, rather than just toddling along hungover a few days after final exams.

Everything has become more professional. Oxford now mostly recruits star academics, seldom alcoholics. Crucially, too, the university has discovered money. In the month I arrived, October 1988, Oxford launched the fundraising “Campaign for Oxford”. Many dons thought this impossibly vulgar. Now the university is busy raising £3bn.

The place smells of money. Practically the first building you see after getting off the train is the Saïd Business School. It wasn’t there in my day. Nor were the high-tech companies at the Begbroke Science Park, let alone the Oxford Internet Institute. Economics and management, a massively oversubscribed undergraduate course today, didn’t exist in my time.

Possibly something has been lost in the change. Oxford isn’t timeless any more. Today’s students have less time to mooch around Magdalen Deer Park, or to build life-long friendships while playing bad cricket or dissecting indie songs at 5am. But it’s surely a better university now.

simon.kuper@ft.com; Twitter @KuperSimon


Letter in response to this column:

Scholarship came before sherry / From Prof Emeritus Raza Ali Tahir-Kheli

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