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Town, gown, or tourist?

Oxford — July 2011

The traditional divide in Oxford was between town and gown. That is now cut across by other social divisions, however, and there's a third component to Oxford's population, in the form of tourists. (At this time of year, central Oxford is completely polyglot, with as almost as much Italian, French, Spanish and German to be heard as English.)

There is a divide within Oxford university between the arts and humanities dons and the scientists. The former seem more closely tied to their colleges and may spend most of their working day in their rooms there, while science staff spend most of their time in their laboratories. There's also a population of "post doctoral research assistants" - like Camilla - who lack college affiliations.

References to "the university" usually mean Oxford University, but Oxford has a second university, Oxford Brookes, which has just as many students (more undergraduates, fewer postgraduates). I was surprised to learn that Brookes students are actually wealthier on average, and from more privileged backgrounds, than OU students.

There are also a lot of people outside the universities doing research or research-related work: in biotech, software development, hospitals, and so forth. In many ways these people have much more in common with university staff than with (say) people working in retail.

No doubt there were always divides between wealthy guild members and peasants or workers, but the "town" side of things is also more diverse now. There's a huge distance, social and geographical, between residents of North Oxford who commute to London to work in the City and unemployed manual workers in Blackbird Leys.

Many people from Europe, children and adults, come to Oxford to do language courses over the summer. They're more like tourists than students in many ways; they don't have much in common with the university undergraduates, anyway.

In general the undergraduate students leave Oxford over the summer - they are turfed out of their college rooms so their colleges can rent them out for conferences etc - when the tourists are at their peak.

Some random rules for typing people

  • if they're wearing academic robes or dress then they're university staff or students
  • language is not a reliable guide, given how cosmopolitan Oxford is: anyone speaking Polish or Punjabi is most probably a local, and Oxford gets a lot of domestic tourists. (My fairly blandly Australian English is a lot less distinctive than anyone speaking Geordie or even a strong local Berkshire dialect.)
  • anyone actually looking at the buildings is probably a tourist.
  • anyone wearing extremely high heels is probably a local: if they are under 20 and their shoes cost less than £20 they're girls in from the 'burbs, if they are over 50 and their shoes cost over £200 they're North Oxford housewives.
  • if they're ardently defending (or attacking) Chomsky's contributions to linguistics, chances are they have some connection with Oxford university.
  • if they're in a group of thirty and just got off a tour bus, or are following a guide with a flag around, then they're tourists.
  • cyclists are probably not tourists, unless they're on hire-bikes.
  • most of the people carrying cameras are tourists (but not all, one resident photographer can be found at Oxford Daily Photo).

And what am I? A local under any formal definition, since I have no affiliation with the university and am (despite potentially being domiciled in Australia for tax purposes) a resident of Oxford. But I can sometimes be seen wandering around with a camera and I do look at the buildings. And I play with a gamelan group attached to the university; and most of the people I know work for the university. Some people might even call me an academic tourist...

Addendum: I took up a half-time job with the university in September 2012, so I guess I'm now half-gown, half-town.


  1. My hunch is that anyone with large visible tattoos is probably a local and not attached to the University.

    As you know, when people from The University talk about 'The Other Place', what is meant is Cambridge, not Oxford Brookes. I don't think I've ever heard a colleague even mention Oxford Brookes at all, so I don't know what it is called.

    Random lunchtime conversations overheard recently that probably betray the 'Gown' side: comparing prices at Christie's auctions with a view to investment; matchmaking JRFs and doctoral students; discussing the governing boards of schools (certain schools); discussing old buildings in terms of maintenance costs.

    Comment by Jenny — July 2011
  2. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the staff and students of Oxford Uni didn't even know Brookes existed!

    Some of the wealthier locals - and some of the tourists too, for that matter - are probably up for bidding at Christie's auctions.

    Comment by danny — July 2011
  3. A very entertaining post! Also, anyone treating the street as a continuation of the pavement (i.e. stepping out and blithely attempting to cross at random places without looking for cycles first) is a tourist. Except at the start of Michaelmas term, when lots of new university first-years behave in a similar way.

    Comment by chimene — July 2011
  4. It is the first time I heard of Oxford Brookes, a very well-kept secret indeed. How long has it been around? It is always the big name institutions in England that I keep hearing of. Institutions like Uni. of London, Imperial College, or the LSE ( where, Mick Jagger was a famous drop-out). Then there is Uni of Manchester, where Ernest Rutherford strut his stuff and now, the charismatic Brian Cox made cosmology and astro-physics accessible to lay persons like me. I still can't get my head around the Second Law of Thermodynamics and entrophy which Brian Cox presented in Wonders of the Universe.

    Comment by DL — July 2011
  5. Oxford Brookes has a history going back to 1865, but has only been a university since 1992. It's been pretty successful - it's done better than most of the promoted polytechnics - but by appropriate specialisation, not by trying to compete with Oxford University. (Though I'm sure there are plenty of Brookes parents who when talking about their children just say something like "she's studying in Oxford".)

    Comment by danny — July 2011
  6. I am surprised by the number of visitors in Oxford now. I thought the greatest show in town is the Murdoch Circus in London.

    Comment by DL — July 2011
  7. Ahhh, it's what used to be the polytechnic... I knew a dissolute young man who had dropped out of there, in about 1990 ....

    Comment by Jarnot — July 2011
  8. Can anyone tell me where had all the Hare Krishna people gone to? Oxford is such a cosmopolitan place that you have the tatooing type, crossroads of languages etc., and in your typing of people, there is no mention of them. Shock, Horror!! Are they still maintaining a presence in the tolerant, safe haven of Oxford?

    There was a time when a protest was not a protest,a celebration was a non-event without the Hare Krishna gracing the party. I think Oxford is just the place which would provide safe refuge for this near-extinct, if not already, species. I miss them.

    Comment by DL — July 2011
  9. I don't think I've seen any Hare Krishnas in Oxford - and if there were any, we're living in the area (East Oxford) where they'd probably be.

    Are they not around Sydney still?

    Comment by danny — July 2011
  10. Hare Krishna simply disappeared without trace. Remember their headquarter ( which was once a funeral parlour) at the corner of Falcon and Miller in Nth. Sydney? They are there no more.

    Hare Krishna is now being replaced by Falun Gong. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falun_Gong http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persecution_of_Falun_Gong You find them in the most surprising of places. For examples I was in Young for the Cherry Festival a few years ago. The Chinese community was invited to take part as a process of reconciling the past. Falun Gong was there with a large contingent.

    For those who are not familiar with Oz history: Young was called Lambing Flat. Exactly 150 years ago there was an ugly riot in which Chinese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lambing_Flat_riots gold diggers were attacked and camps ransacked by big violent mobs.

    Then there was the big City to Surf fun run, Falun Gong was there near the finishing line.

    Falun Gong followers are trying their hardest to embarrass the Chinese Govt. They kept a 24 hr vigil outside the Consulate. It was so successful that visa applications to China are now out-sourced to contractors housed in a city high rise office block. It costs much more to all applicants.

    The Chinese Govt. also tried to bar without success, the sect from taking part in the Chinese New Year Parade in Sydney, which is the biggest outside of Asia. And on any weekend, the sect's followers would put on display and hand out flyers and pamphlets condemning China's brutality, in Sydney's Chinatown. It is a thorn on the side of the Chinese Govt. outside of China.

    Comment by DL — July 2011

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