HuffPost: ‘How not to apply for a Banking Internship’

Reproduced from the Huffington Post

Though coveted by the Oxford masses, I have never been wedded to a career in finance. But breaking into the world of journalism is famously fickle and so – petrified at the prospect of inactivity next summer – I decided to begin looking elsewhere for work experience. Banking was the obvious choice. The prospect of earning £4000 was entirely palatable, and my ineptitude with numbers doesn’t quite amount to a phobia – so on a dull Sunday afternoon from the comfort of my laptop I gave it a shot.

Image

To my horror I catapulted through the preliminary stages – which involved a short exercise in form-filling and a couple of psychometric tests (the effect of which after a while is crushingly psychedelic). I was then invited to a telephone interview, which I wrote neatly into my diary before duly forgetting about it until the designated morning. Half-way through watching the first episode of Channel 4’s hit series Fresh Meat, the phone rang.

What followed was probably the most excruciating 60 minutes of my life; and that includes the abject terror of the primary school disco. I will respectfully preserve the bank’s anonymity; let’s just call it Bank X for now:
The first question: “what have you heard about X in the news recently?”. Beat. “Yes, I follow financial news very closely”, I reply with all the composure of an ignoramus on QI. Silence. Apparently this won’t do. ‘Shit, ok, don’t say Libor, don’t say Libor, just don’t’ I instruct the vocal cords as my mind frenzies for something slightly more ingratiating. ‘Nope, nothing? Right ok let’s go with it’.

“Libor” I whimper, immediately throwing some inane platitudes about it being an “industry-wide concern” into the huge pile of dung I’d just delivered to his door. I recall not so long ago an inebriated cousin, twice or thrice removed, informing an entirely sober Great Aunt that he thought she’d already “kicked the bucket”. This was worse.

And it didn’t get much better. I reported reading their annual report. Smelling a rat he asked me what I found most interesting about it. Dead end. I then stumbled through the inevitable ‘overcoming a challenge’ question without too much grief. Far more difficult to swindle my way through was ‘Give an example of a situation in which you’ve had to process and respond to data’. Yuk, spreadsheets terrify me and figuring out the unit price of 3-for-2 ready meals in Tesco is normally sufficient to send my cerebral cortex into a tail spin. I considered making a self-deprecating joke to that effect but by this stage the general air of sympathy and understanding had evaporated.

Predictably Bank X sent me this message last week: “When selecting successful candidates we look for evidence of all of our leadership behaviours, and strong motivation to join the FLDP [Future Leaders Development Programme]. Unfortunately on this occasion we did not see enough evidence of the above to progress your application to the next stage.”

Wholly accurate, and I think a reassuring sign of the renewed health of the banking industry. Oscar Wilde famously commented that he would not wish to belong to any club that would accept him as a member. Similarly I reason, any bank prepared to hire me should immediately have their licence revoked. In this regard I have since offered my services to the Financial Standards Authority as an undercover applicant. I’m still waiting to hear back from them.

Now it’s easy to be flippant, you might say, when finance is not my ultimate aspiration. Tragically there will be, to borrow a recent turn of phrase, binders full of rejects who have their heart and soul set on finance. No irreverent words can bring comfort to them. Except this: my sneaking suspicion is that the whole internship racket is far less fun than the lovely HR people make out. Not that I’ll ever find out of course, but perhaps someone could let me know?

HuffPost: ‘Why Oxbridge Really Is For Everyone’

Reproduced from the Huffington Post:

With the UCAS deadline for Oxford and Cambridge Universities approaching, most prospective applicants will by now have revved up their engines: over the next two months they will sit rigorous tests, struggle through the self-consciously intellectual books listed on their personal statements and prepare for the infamous Oxbridge interviews (which are nearly always an anti-climax).

Image

A big-bunch of A-level students however, despite being predicted a flurry of ‘A’ and ‘A*’ grades, will watch the deadline come and go – because ‘Oxbridge isn’t for everyone’, right?

Tosh. You have to be fairly smart, though to demonstrate an ‘inquiring’ character is really the clincher. And of course it’s competitive – which means that you might not get in even if you do possess the academic talent in spades.

But to suggest, as Owen Jones did last year in a typically conciliatory article, ‘Abolish Oxbridge’, that applicants without a middle-class upbringing are unable to shine at interview is both patronising to those young people, and insulting to the intelligence of tutors.

And of course we all remember Elly Nowell, the aspirant lawyer whose parodying rejection letter to Magdalen College, Oxford, hit headlines earlier this year. In a subsequent Guardian op-ed she complained “If you’re achieving high grades at A-level (or equivalent) you can feel quite a lot of pressure to “prove yourself” by getting an Oxbridge offer”. The ancient buildings and interview rooms were “intimidating” for kids who’ve “grown up on benefits on council estates”. I don’t wish to call Elly a liar, but is this young woman – wholly prepared to thrust herself into the national spotlight – really that terrified by the elegant stone masonry of Magdalen? Or is she cynically playing up to the metropolitan liberal stereotypes of what it means to be working-class at Oxbridge?

The truth is that Elly would have thrived at Oxford – whether she was the shy yet bright woman she presented herself as, or the confident go-getter we really know her to be. Ed Cumming, a Cambridge graduate on the Telegraph, is right when he says “College Life rewards joiners-in.” There are countless clubs, societies and niche groupings to immerse yourself in. What the universities of London, Leeds and Manchester have in size – Oxbridge makes up for in richness and variety.

And no, that isn’t alluding to the port-sodden debauchery of the Oxford Conservative Association – a fairly crude stereotype the BBC does its best to keep alive. The closest most undergraduates come to re-living the Edwardian Era is watching Downton Abbey on a dodgy cable connection in the JCR.

The collegiate system makes Oxford and Cambridge two of the warmest and most supportive student environments anywhere. It’s difficult to eke out a reclusive existence – even if you want one – with social, academic, catering and living spaces all integrated into the same place. By contrast my friends at other universities – ones supposedly renowned for their nightlife – often find themselves lonely and anonymous, tucked away in a quiet corner of some 70s accommodation block.

My own story is emphatically not one of deprivation. Both my parents went to university. So perhaps I cannot invest the same emotional energy into dispelling Oxbridge myths that others, Elly Nowell say, put into perpetuating them. All I can do is lay out the facts as I see them, describing how unstuffy and accommodating Oxford appears to me. Where pockets of cliquish behaviour exist, they are ridiculed by people who – largely through the Oxbridge experience – have become smart and self-assured enough to know better.

The tragedy of the ‘Oxbridge isn’t for you’ message is its threat to become a self-flufilling prophecy. Fortunately the converse is also true: heroic efforts by the Sutton Trust, as well as Oxford and Cambridge themselves, have finally started to bring state school admissions into line with where it should be. The facts, I hope, will start to drown out the voices of those who self-righteously stand against Oxbridge – unwittingly alienating the very people Oxford and Cambridge need to broaden their intake.

OK to Sell Internships?

Reprinted from the Huffington Post:

Is it okay to sell internships? We know that the Conservative Party certainly thinks so. Their ball last year raised tens of thousands of pounds flogging off plum internships inImage finance, industry and the media to Tory donors.

Cases like that one immediately invoke repulsion, but what if the money raised is going to a good cause?

Take a look at this now-elapsed charity auction raising money for an extremely worthy cause. There were 50 lots, selling all manner of sparkly items and experiences. Some of the most popular lots though were those selling work experience placements and one, a two week placement at the Sunday Times, finally went for over £2820.

It sounds like a lot, but in the context of a promoting a son or daughter’s fledgling career it’s a small investment to make.

The internships were advertised as ‘experiences’. The recipients as well as their benefactors will surely sleep easy in the knowledge not that they’ve bought a step up in life, but simply a worthwhile ‘experience’. The word is evasive, equating a market in internships to one in any other leisurely activity. Of course we all know it isn’t.

Can one imagine a society in which jobs – especially the lucrative, coveted ones – were auctioned off, rather than allocated on the basis of merit? A country in which young people scour the Sunday supplements in search of a profession they can afford to enter, rather than one they might excel in? No, but in a more insidious way it remains the state we are in. A tight jobs market requires applicants to have interned, for which they must typically have performed unremunerated labour or, as these ugly cases represent, bought outright.

Sellling off internships stinks; it is intrinsically immoral. There can be no justification for it. Yet in the fiercest job market for young people since the early 1980s young people are in no position to end the practice.

The Oxford ‘Posh Girls’ Guide and the Death of Satire

Reprinted from the Huffington Post

Like most students who rarely summon the energy to go out at the weekend, I am a big fan of Al Murray, best known as the jocular pub landlord (and less famous as an Oxford history graduate). Every week the stereotypical jingoist used to grace our screens, slandering just about everything that wasn’t British. Lampooning Germans was a particular favourite. However the audience, tickled pink by his rabidly patriotic routine, understood that the show was a farce. No one left the studio fired up with nationalistic rage. No, they had a chuckle and went home. Because the obvious truth is that Al Murray isn’t a xenophobe; nor does he incite xenophobia.

Writing ‘A Guide to Dating Posh Girls’ for Cherwell, the 96-year-old Oxford University newspaper, I placed tremendous belief in ‘Murray’s Law’ – namely that in a sufficiently ridiculous context otherwise objectionable remarks could elicit harmless humour. Fearlessly therefore, I asserted that posh girls are terrified of venturing to the North, that they are all secretly Conservatives and, most controversially, that they will have had frequent sex from a young age. Following the national uproar this provoked, characterised by screaming headlines and Twitter’s self-righteous convulsions, my faith is waning.

I was greatly touched that amidst the week’s hard-hitting stories – the revelation that Harry has genitalia being the most significant – the national newspapers found space to report my ‘Posh Girls’ piece, and the subsequent controversy it raised. Thus I briefly entered the national spotlight in a rather ignominious fashion. I’ve long harboured ambitions to get into the newspaper business, though I’d hoped to write the articles rather than feature in them.

You have to be quite a tough nut to be catapulted from obscurity to national infamy whilst holding your nerve. The calls, texts and emails are relentless. Total strangers start tearing you apart. In the eye of the storm, your public popularity lies somewhere between that of Al Qaeda and E. Coli. Indeed one cannot maintain any sort of ego. A particularly cruel chap called Chen, commenting on the Daily Mail article, had this to say: “No wonder he can’t get any good/posh girls. He looks dreadful”. Well Chen, notwithstanding the Mail‘s heroic efforts at impartiality, that’s also how I felt.

Read literally, ‘Posh Girls’ is odious. That’s why my apology to the offended readers remains; they were my words, so the responsibility rests with me. But it’s precisely because the remarks were objectionable that they were placed in a deeply insincere and self-deprecating context. It was written to be phenomenally, obviously and rigorously ridiculous. And whilst my satirical skills were perhaps inadequate, the intent was clear.

The aim was to gently mock ridiculous generalisations and make people chuckle along the way. Endowed with a dollop of common sense, anyone would have understood the remarks as being employed satirically and sarcastically. The suggestion that all ‘posh girls’ are covert Tories may contain a nugget of truth. All humour does. But only a witless cretin would interpret that as an explicit allegation pertaining to each and every upper-class female.

Well not just a witless cretin, rival student journalists too. Everyone knows that Oxford politics is a viciously competitive affair whose practitioners are every bit as duplicitous and conniving as the ones in Westminster. The same is true of student journalism. Cherwell exists in competition with the Oxford Student, the student union paper, and there is no love lost between them. The latter regards itself as Oxford’s moral compass. Indeed they were so outraged by my piece that they… reprinted it in full (strictly in the public interest of course). On the same day the Sun defended its publication of Prince Harry’s nude Vegas pictures as similarly in ‘the public interest’. Which claim, I would ask sardonically, is the more credible?

I understand that not everyone is an Al Murray enthusiast. Some people do consider him to be a xenophobe. They’re probably the same people who think I’ve started a misogynistic class-war. Though countless well-wishers have encouraged me to, I’m not just going to tell them to ‘get a sense of humour’, for that would diminish the seriousness of a far more saddening phenomenon. I feel sorry for those people. It must be unpleasant to go through life expecting hatred and horror at every turn. The world must seem scary, hostile and morally bankrupt – when really it isn’t. On second thoughts though, save your pity. It is far more unpleasant for the people against whom this PC mob turns.

It would be a great shame were satire to die in the public sphere, as cases like mine indicate it has. Occasionally there will be misinterpretations of intent. Writers should therefore do their best to disambiguate their language and style. But that’s only half the problem. The only full solution would be a disclaimer: ‘I don’t really mean x and y and z’. I immediately feel empty at the thought. It would patronise readers, most of whom are wholly aware of the jest. To immunise satire from causing offence, one would have to kill it. Let’s not.

Is It Still Worth Climbing the Greasy Pole of Oxford Politics?

Reproduced from the Huffington Post:

Aside from yet another tedious round of Oxbridge bashing, the BBC’s new series ‘Young, Bright and On the Right’ fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our Oxbridge-educated political elite.

There indeed used to be a time when climbing up the greasy pole of Oxford politics promised ‘glittering prizes’ to those fierce and ambitious enough to brave it. William Gladstone famously captivated the debate chamber of the Oxford Union in vociferous opposition to the impending 1832 Great Reform Act. He would go on to become President, before entering Parliament a year after his graduation. Asquith and Heath would similarly come to dominate Westminster via ascendancy of the Oxford Union.

This is plainly the path to power that Chris and Joe, the Tory boys, have in mind. Unfortunately that path, however well worn, is disintegrating.

Glancing at today’s ‘big beasts’ it admittedly doesn’t seem so. BoJo, whose flirtations with the Tory crown have almost induced Tory backbenchers to orgasm, was a Union President. And William Hague established himself by achieving the elusive Oxford ‘triple’: President of the Union, the Conservative Association and First Class Honours in PPE. Command of student politics still sets one up nicely for the big-boy stuff, it seems.

Michael Heseltine at the Union, President in Michaelmas ’54. Photograph: popperfoto

However the trend is moving firmly in the other direction. Consider today’s leaders of both Left and Right: Cameron, Osborne and Miliband. All at Oxford, and all wholly withdrawn from the murky world of student politics. The reasons for their detachment vary. Cameron preferred chasing girls and playing tennis, with success in both. Miliband was just a bit square (reportedly his fame as a student rested on being able to solve a Rubik’s cube in 30 seconds). Osborne was simply an awful hack. Before entering Parliament he had only contested one prior election, for Magdalen College JCR Entz Rep. He lost.

But they all had one thing in common: connections. These were of differing types and natures, but all made it to the despatch box by utilising them.

Cameron infamously received his first job at the Conservative Research Department following a call of recommendation from Buckingham Palace (who placed the call is pure speculation). Osborne secured a similar job after a tip-off from a friend. And in the Hampstead suburbs in which the Milibands were left-wing aristocracy, Ed had no trouble pursuing the Special Adviser route into politics.

Oxford matters of course, but not in the way Chris and Joe think. The Bullingdon matters. Cultivating the right friendships matters. College alumni can be helpful. Most of all though the attributes of family wealth, a baronetcy and private education all spawn a prodigious network of contacts that far outweighs the social assets accumulated at the dwindling political societies. I know of three people – no doubt there are more – who have got their foot in the door by exploiting contacts. One received an internship at CCHQ through his brother’s girlfriend; another spent a fortnight in Downing Street courtesy of her father, a prominent Tory donor and the third shadowed a Cabinet Minister who was a close family acquaintance. None hold any position at OCA or the Union.

Tomorrow’s Camerons and Osbornes already have their future figured out, even if the exact details haven’t yet fallen into place. They don’t need CUCA or OCA for fulfil their aspirations in the acute sense that Chris and Joe feel they do. So they don’t bother going. And anyway, a litany of scandals (resulting in OCA being stripped by the University if its ‘U’) has depleted the kudos that would otherwise come with being OCA President. Consequently the Oxford Tories I know are a generally unambitious bunch. They enjoy the company of those of similar political persuasion and mutual acquaintance, but are immediately suspicious of attempts to use the Association as a ‘platform’ from which to launch a political career. Joe, a former President of OCA, is seen by his contemporaries in precisely this light.

So Chris and Joe, do carry on moving in Tory circles, squeezing the flesh of fellow hacks. But don’t expect political fortune to come your way. In 21st century Britain the networks of power bypass mere clubs and societies. If you haven’t had the good sense to be born of good stock, there’s no making up for that by ingratiating yourselves to those who have.

And please, for your sakes, don’t go pleading your case on the BBC. It’ll be the last time you make it onto a television screen.