The Oxford – Manizales connection of “town versus gown”


During my application to work in Colombia, an unexpected detail arose. While the volunteer program through which I applied was admirably diligent in supplying my visa and ironing out the inevitable viper’s nest of logistics involved, I would be unable to choose the actual location where I would be teaching. I could have ended up anywhere from the heart of cosmopolitan Bogota? or the fast-paced bustle of Medelli?n, to the heat-blasted languor of the Pacific Coast, to any of the innumerable towns that make up Colombia’s topographical canvas. Alas, when I opened the fateful email a month be- fore my departure from the U.K, to the revelation that the mountain city of Manizales, capital of the coffee region, would be my home for the next year, my reaction was a monosyllabic ‘Where?’

This was a predictable, though thoroughly avoidable, reaction. My highschool geography classes, compounded by frantic last-minute research in the run-up to my journey, had failed to alert me to the coffee capital’s existence. However, a few quick google searches, as well as the indispensable experience of actually living there, set my mind at rest. Manizales, recently voted the best place to live in Colombia, is as safe as it is culturally rich – for example, I enjoyed the Manizales theatre festival a few weeks ago, which attracts performers from all over the world. However, as I explored my adopted home more and more, and my initial misgivings faded into distant memory, it occurred to me that I had settled a little too quickly.

From the beginning, Manizales seemed suspiciously familiar. The ringing of the bells of its beautiful cathedral, a dominant fixture of the city’s skyline, in turn rang bells, quiet, but impossible to ignore, in my memory. The abundance of youthful faces in the streets, while easily explained by the city’s abundance of universities, made me feel no less at home. Nonetheless, despite these omnipresent warning signs, it took a good few months to root out the reasons for this mysterious affinity for my placement city, and it was only during an idle browsing session on Wikipedia that realization dawned. You see, Manizales, like many cities across the world, was twinned with foreign counterparts in the wake of the Second World War (in the succinct words of the Inverness Town Twinning Committee, ‘with the goal of fostering human contact and cultural links’) and, amongst Manizales’ siblings, and in such illustrious company as Barcelona and Lisbon, lies the city of Oxford. Oxford, where I spent four years of my life sweating over hurriedly written essays and occasionally finding the time to enjoy myself. Oxford, where some of my most formative memories came into being. Oxford, at which historic university I graduated last year in Classics. It seems that I’m inexorably driven by fate into living in university cities with suspiciously youthful populations and pretty cathedrals, and being shaped, in turn, by those cities.

These two cities, the only two places I’ve ever lived alone, are similar in many ways. Oxford, of course, would no doubt claim to be the more grandiose of the two. The famous university’s foundation date is mired in a quicksand of squabbling between its 44 colleges and halls, but certainly pre-dates the signing of Magna Carta in 1215 AD. It’s pro- duced 27 of the UK’s Prime Ministers. Furthermore, with her recent scalping of the California Institute of Technology for the top spot of the best 100 world universities, the old girl may feel more justified in her reputation than ever before. In addition, student culture dominates certain parts of the city. Over 200 student drama productions, open to both students and townspeople, are put on every term.

But the city at large is too often equated wholesale with its most famous institution. Oxford Brookes University, located further to the east, provides a crucial, often dismissed part of the city’s student body. Beyond the students, in a divide that has come to be known as ‘town versus gown’, a schism is often keenly felt between the youthful student population, and the older generation born and raised in the city itself. This schism was never more keenly shown than in the 2015 general election. The constituency of Oxford East, chock-full of my fellow lefty students, voted overwhelmingly for the more left-wing Labour Party, whereas the more affluent Oxford West, the well-feathered nest of Oxford’s dominant native middle class, was one of the many constituencies that voted David Cameron’s Conservative government into existence.

Any night out in Manizales’ Zona Rosa, amongst the throng of inebriated young scholars, will attest to the similarity of the twin cities. Manizales is home to four universities, as compared to Oxford’s two, and therefore, if anything, the student culture is all the more vibrant. While a Colombian friend of mine recently described Manizales as ‘Colombia’s most conservative city’, for every one of the silver-haired retirees who make up Manizales’ more conservative wing, you will see at least three boisterous students.

The University of Caldas and the National University of Colombia, as one might guess from their names, are state-owned and largely tax-payer funded, whereas the Autonomous University of Manizales and the Catholic University of Manizales are privately owned, and rather more costly. Therefore, another unfortunate similarity seems to persist beneath the student culture of the two cities. While the Colombian government subjects the applicants, at least to its own universities, to a rigorous vetting process designed to evaluate their background, with the intention that the poorest applicants should pay less, a better option is always available for the wealthy, by dint of said wealth. Therefore, with no incentive for richer students to apply for state education, the practical upshot is that the state universities are filled with students from poorer backgrounds, and the private with the richer students.

The UK, sadly, presents no less of a financially stratified student population. Although Oxford University offers bursaries to around 1 in 4 students, and these days 56% of students come from state school backgrounds, the overall national minority (18% over 16 years of age) of private school students still holds disproportionate sway. Therefore, it seems that, although there’s little difference between the numbers of students in Colombian and British higher education (37.2% in Colombia and the 38% in UK in 2010), Manizales is indeed, both for better and for worse, Oxford’s twin. While the student-crowded streets and guitar-playing youths recall the fondest parts of my education, the grimier, harsher side of Oxford’s gilded coin has also been carried over from the mint, and I emerge the more aware of both.


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