by Damira Khatam
In my previous article on Tashabbus’s website, I discussed generally a decision to pursue a Master of Law degree in the United States or the United Kingdom. In this article, similarly organized in the question-and-answer format, I will focus on my experience studying at the Oxford University. I came to Oxford in September 2004 to pursue a one-year Magister Juris (MJur) program, a master of laws course specifically designed for lawyers who obtained their first degree in law from a civil law country, in my case from the Law Faculty of the University of World Economy and Diplomacy (UWED) in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
To me, the decision was very personal and perhaps a bit romanticized. It all started with an old Soviet-printed English Language school textbook, which had a chapter on education in the United Kingdom. The chapter was primarily devoted to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and had a black-and-white picture of what I now presume was one of Oxford’s college buildings. I was about eleven years old then and the picture made quite an impression on me, symbolizing in one image my love for books, travels to far-away countries and a promise of extraordinary adventures. So, you can imagine how ecstatic I was to receive the letter of admission from the only university I applied to during my last year at UWED.
Romance aside, there are many pragmatic reasons why Oxford is a great choice to study law. First, it combines centuries of teaching traditions and world-renowned reputation. It is, after all, the oldest university in the English-speaking world with teaching dating as far back as 1096. Second, the university is very competitive both in the quality of faculty members and students coming from all over the world. Third, its unique tutorial-based teaching system provides an unmatched opportunity for students to present ideas and discuss their work with leading academics in small groups, typically consisting of two or three students.
During all of my tutorials (one hour long discussions with a professor specializing in the particular field) I had only one other fellow-student. Although I appreciated the individual attention and almost one-on-one interaction with my tutors, it was at times a bit nerve-racking: coming unprepared, something that one can potentially get away with in a group of 20 students, was not an option.
How is the University Structured?
The structure of the University of Oxford was actually quite confusing to me in the beginning. What many foreign students may not know is that the University of Oxford is a collegiate city-university. The University is a federation comprised of 38 self-governing colleges and 6 permanent halls, along with a central administration formally headed by the Chancellor, but de facto by the Vice-Chancellor.
Academic departments, such as Oxford’s Law Faculty are not affiliated with any particular college. They provide facilities for teaching and research, determine the syllabi and deliver lectures and seminars. Colleges, on the other hand, arrange tutorials, provide residential and dining amenities, and facilitate social, cultural and recreational activities for their members.
What Was Your Admission Process Experience?
One unique feature of Oxford’s dual admission process is that the admission decision is made separately by the Law Faculty and a specific college. Once accepted by the Faculty you are guaranteed to receive an offer from a college, but not necessarily the college you chose on your application form.
At the time of my application, I had a very vague understanding of the university structure and left the space, where I was supposed to pick the college, blank. I ended up at St Anne’s college, which turned out to be a great outcome for many reasons, including comfortable modern graduate accommodation, great food in the college dining hall and the largest college library in Oxford. Most importantly, I made life-long college friends and I was lucky to have a great college academic advisor. That being said, I would recommend future applicants to research the colleges more thoroughly than I did, because they differ in terms of their disciplinary focus, amenities and location. For example, while many graduate accommodation buildings are located next to their respective college, St Anne’s graduate accommodation was over a mile away from the college and the Law Faculty, making daily commute a bit of a challenge during colder, rainy months.
You may learn more about the Oxford law admission process at the following link: http://www.law.ox.ac.uk/postgraduate/admitfaqs.php. To learn more about scholarships and financial aid that Oxford offers see http://www.law.ox.ac.uk/postgraduate/scholarships.php.
What Can You Tell About Student Life in General?
Where do I start?! Oxford provides diverse and truly amazing opportunities for socializing, cultural and academic enrichment and professional networking. First, graduate law students can socialize through the faculty activities. There are always some famous visiting professors, government officials and celebrities in town. Many events are scheduled during the lunch break and offer free lunches. Apart from the events organized by the Law Faculty, law students can freely attend numerous events hosted by other faculties and centers, providing a truly inter-disciplinary learning experience.
Second, graduate law students can socialize through their respective college’s Middle Common Rooms. In some UK universities, students and faculty are organized into common rooms, which serve as representative bodies in college life and as actual specially designated rooms within the college building. A Junior Common Room is for undergraduate students, a Middle Common Room (MCR) is for graduate students and a Senior Common Room for academics and staff members. MCR is an inter-disciplinary body which provides an opportunity to socialize with graduate students from a wide range of backgrounds and organizes all sorts of cultural and social events. For example, some of the events that I attended through St. Anne’s College MCR were a visit to Winston Churchill’s birth place-Blenheim Palace, attending a theme park with the world’s first 14-loop rollercoaster or attending one of Oxford’s many traditional events such as May Morning.
Third, graduate accommodation is organized in a way that students with various backgrounds share flats consisting of separate rooms for each student and a common kitchen and bathrooms. I lived in a flat with four graduate students: two mathematicians from Germany, a doctoral chemistry student from England and an American archeologist. Our dinner discussions ranged from topics on cultural and historical nuances of our respective countries to law, chemistry lab experiments and archeology.
Lastly, Oxford offers opportunities to join numerous clubs, societies (sports, cultural, political, law), language classes, gym and many other facilities throughout the city open for all students, often for free or a nominal fee. For example, I was a member of Oxford’s International Cinema Club and the Oxford Law Society, and attended free Italian language and Advanced English classes at Oxford’s Language Center.
How About Academic Life?
The academic year is divided into three terms: Michaelmas (starts in early October), Hillary and Trinity (ends in second half of June), each lasting eight weeks with six-week breaks in between first and second term. During the Michaelmas term there are only lectures and seminars. Most tutorials start in Hillary term while all exams except for “take-home” papers are scheduled at the end of Trinity, in late June and first half of July. Each student is assigned a college academic advisor.
Masters of law degree students, both MJur students and students from common law countries pursuing a Bachelor of Civil Law degree (BCL) are required to choose four different classes of their preference. I chose 1) International Law, 2) International Dispute Resolution, 3) European Union as an Actor in International Law and 4) Jurisprudence and Political Theory.
My choice was largely based on the subject-matter interest in those specific courses and I did not take advantage of the add/drop class period. Ability to try out as many classes as possible (professor’s teaching style/substance of the subject, etc.) before committing was another novel concept to me (and surely to many other students coming from Uzbekistan). I would definitely recommend attending multiple different classes before final registration of your choice to explore the courses, which suit your academic and career goals the best. The teaching style, the class syllabus and the format for the final exam are important considerations both in terms of the scope of substantive knowledge you may gain and in terms of your grades.
What Was Your Most Challenging Class and Why?
Jurisprudence and Political Theory was by far the most challenging class I have ever studied. I picked it because of its reputation as being intellectually challenging and because it was the field which Oxford professors were famous for. It was taught by multiple different professors, many of whom authored the leading books on the subject. However, as I quickly found out this class was way above my head, not only because it was theoretical and philosophical, but also because to understand some of the controversial discussion topics, I had to have a solid background in English and American legal history, traditions, the U.S. civil rights movement and many notable legal precedents. Virtually all, if not all, of my classmates came from the English Common law countries. I should have probably dropped this course right after the first few classes, but I was too stubborn.
I particularly remember how during one of the seminars, I was sitting on a thick oriental rug in the corner of a beautiful medieval room trying really hard to follow the discussion related to a chapter from Capital by Karl Marx. The irony was that being the only student in this class from a former Soviet country, I should have probably known much more about it. Unfortunately, I read the chapter in question for the first time only in preparation for my class. As you might guess, after the Soviet Union collapse, Capital was not a particularly popular book and was removed from most libraries and all educational programs. I still don’t know how I survived my Jurisprudence and Political Theory class and passed the exam.
How is the MJur examined?
As I mentioned above, all exams (graduate and undergraduate) except for certain papers, take place at the end of Trinity term, mostly by three-hour written examinations. Typically, during these three hours a student is required to answer four questions. You are not allowed to use any books (except for statutory materials), but that would not help anyway. The questions are constructed in a way that to be able to respond within the allocated time, one has to spend days and even weeks in advance preparation. This is in addition to attending lectures, seminars and tutorials, of course. Questions from past year exams are available for students and are typically studied during tutorials or used as practice topics for weekly tutorial essays.
Unlike Uzbekistan’s legal educational system which largely focuses on testing students’ ability to memorize rules and knowledge of basic legal concepts, Oxford tests their ability to be independent thinkers and apply complex legal concepts in practice. Essentially, the university strives to teach its law students not only what the specific legislative provision or case law says, but also how it applies and why it was adopted. It is expected that the student understands the law’s rational, policy considerations and is able to identify its shortcomings.
The only exam that had a different format was my Jurisprudence and Political Theory exam. It was a “take home” exam requiring submission of three essays written over the six-week long Easter vacation. The topics can be selected by students from over a dozen topics prescribed by the examiners. However, the fact that one could select three topics of their choice for the essays and write it within approximately three weeks of spring vacation did not make the task any easier. The topics were controversial, assumed familiarity with relevant scholarly works and required writing an original piece. As a way of example, here is a sample of the type of questions that are asked to be addressed in the Jurisprudence and Political Theory exam essays:
Is it true that freedom is an objective which necessarily conflicts with equality and justice?
“The responsibility of state government and law for securing justice is compatible with, indeed requires, state neutrality about controversial questions concerning the nature of persons and the morality of their attitudes and conduct.” Discuss.
Although the examination period is very stressful, you don’t feel it as much because of the wonderful summer weather and how festive Oxford looks in summer. Imagine Oxford’s winding cobbled streets covered with a sea of students and professors wearing sub fusks (white shirts, black bottoms, black narrow ties and the appropriate academic robe) that are the required attire for taking all exams. Many students wear beautiful white carnations on their robe’s lapel for good luck.
Apart from strict regulations, there are many traditions associated with the exam process. Everything has its own place and order, even to such small detail as to where each student has to place his/her mortarboard on the desk. The last exam ends with friends and classmates pouring champagne over you and washing away all the stress of the past weeks. After that there are no more than a few weeks left until the formal graduation ceremony.
Can You Describe Some of Oxford’s Traditions?
Because the university has been around for so many centuries, pretty much everything around you has some sort of a story or a long-lasting tradition behind it. Remember how in the first Harry Potter movie, little Harry had to buy a robe from an ancient looking store. This is actually one of the first things you have to do as well—acquire a black robe of special cut and length for graduate students and a black mortarboard from a specialized store. In fact many scenes from the first two movies of the Potter series, including the dining hall and library scenes were shot in Oxford.
The form of Oxford’s academic robes can be traced back to medieval Europe, when dress marked out the rank and profession of the wearer. In fact, the last time the design of the academic dress worn today in Oxford was modified was in the sixteenth century. Students and professors wear academic dress not only for matriculation and graduation, but also throughout the year. For example, we were required to wear gowns for formal college dinners, some lectures and many other significant occasions, such as final exams. Speaking of dinners, the dining halls in many colleges look pretty much exactly like in Hogwarts minus the magic of course: long wooden tables and benches for students, a separate table for professors located on a podium, old portraits on the walls, ancient chandeliers hanging from gothic ceiling and rows of students dressed in black gowns.
The first ceremony that each new student has to attend is a matriculation ceremony (separate for each college) that marks your formal admission. It is a relatively short, but pompous and crowded ceremony conducted entirely in Latin, the monotony of which (as I was told) is always interrupted at some point by a hollow sound of an overly excited freshman fainting in the middle of the Latin speech. It actually happened during my ceremony as well. To the university’s credit, they were ready and quietly carried away the fainting student within less than a minute. The matriculation ceremony was followed by an elaborate picture-taking, during which another student fainted and was promptly carried away.
No academic experience can be complete without description of a library. In Oxford, there are many: each college has a library of its own and there are also the Bodleian Libraries which include the Law Library and the chief among all Oxford libraries –the Bodleian Library known as “Bodley” or “the Bod.” It is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and Britain’s second largest library, second in size only to the British Library. An interesting tradition related to the Bodleian Library preserved to this day is that no books are lent to the readers. Even King Charles I was refused permission to borrow a book in 1645.
Another example of a wonderful Oxford tradition is May Morning, which takes place on May 1. On the eve, all pubs and clubs stay open until the morning. At 6 a.m. people gather on Magdalen Bridge to hear choristers sing madrigals, while some students, for some reason jump into the cold river from the bridge. After the singing and/or jumping many students go to their colleges’ common rooms to drink champagne and eat strawberries.
The last tradition that I experienced in Oxford was my graduation ceremony. The ceremony, also conducted in large part in Latin, takes place in the Sheldonian Theater built in 1667. For the ceremony, students are required to wear different gowns representing the specific degree that they are receiving. For MJurs and BCLs it is a gown with a blue and white fur collar.
The procedure of “supplication” for the degree was actually quite funny. Before we could be conferred with the degree we had to walk in groups of four, holding hands like ballerinas in the Swan Lake ballet led by a proctor who would then petition our admission to the degree in front of the congregation of the university officials.
Looking back, the year spent at Oxford was one of the most challenging years in terms of academic vigor and in terms of exposure and adapting to the environment so different than the one in Uzbekistan. However, it also made me stronger as a lawyer and broadened my worldview. The experiences I had in Oxford made me ponder on the privileges and responsibilities of the legal profession, my profession; and made me appreciate just how lucky I was to have access to the world class education.
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