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‘We Must End Oxbridge’s Stranglehold On The Bar And Look Instead To The Russell Group’

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OccupyTheInns argues that the recent increase of Oxbridge representation among pupil barristers is bad news for the Bar

I found it awfully sad to read in the latest Bar Barometer that pupillage numbers have fallen again, but I believe I was even more saddened by another finding: the increase in the percentage of pupils who had studied at Oxford and Cambridge. The figure has risen from 23.7% in 2010 to 34.5% in the most recent tally-up.

For the life of me I have never understood this obsession with what is popularly known as ‘Oxbridge’. Perhaps this national fixation would make sense if no other universities existed in this country other than polytechnics, but that is patently not the case. Britain has a plethora of centres of excellence for undergraduate learning, at the head of which lies the Russell Group…

I was fortunate enough to study at a leading Russell Group University – an active choice I made after deliberately not applying to Oxford or Cambridge because I believed their version of my course to be inferior. I stand by that choice. Moreover, I am convinced that the experience I enjoyed was far richer than that of a student who attends Oxford or Cambridge. I have three key reasons to support this proposition.

The first is that, as I correctly judged when applying, the teaching on my (non-law) course was absolutely first-class, delivered by some of the best academics in their field globally. I know for a fact that the equivalent courses at both Oxford and Cambridge do not have the same calibre of academics teaching on them.

Secondly, the course I studied had a far more innovative curriculum, and was far more daring generally, than the sort of course delivered in an Oxbridge college rooted permanently in the mists of time.

Finally, and most importantly in my submission, is the fantastically broad life experience I gained during my undergraduate years. Mixing with people from all corners of the globe and society, I am often reminded of a line in Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ when I think back to those days.

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch”

It is thanks to my university, where the diversity was far greater than Oxbridge and the culture far more conducive to socialising, that I learnt to do this.

Sitting now as I do at my writing table after another day assisting on an international sustainability project, the tropical sun setting on the verdant green hills through the window in front of me, London seems far, far away, as if it were another time, another world.

It is hard to believe that less than three months ago I was receiving the good news that I had obtained pupillage. Without the skills that I learnt at university – I am referring to life skills as much as educational skills – I am certain that this would not have happened.

Yet the Bar Barometer shows that there are fewer of my kind making it to the Bar. A closed-shop old boys’ Oxbridge club is no good for anyone, other than the old boys themselves, threatening precious talent that could have a very positive impact on the Bar going forward. It is for this reason that I urge policy-makers to move swiftly to end this Oxbridge stranglehold on the Bar and look instead to the Russell Group.

OccupyTheInns graduated from the BPTC last summer, and was called to the Bar in July 2011. He will commence pupillage next autumn. There’s more from OccupyTheInns here.

33 Comments

pibarrister

Okay, despite my better judgement, I’ll bite.

The Bar is still regarded by many as an elite profession. Not surprisingly, therefore, competition for both pupillage and tenancy is intense and attracts many very high calibre candidates.

Oxford and Cambridge both regularly top the various academic tables for a wide variety of different course subjects. As a result, competition for places is also intense and again attracts high calibre candidates.

It’s hardly surprising therefore that Oxbridge graduates should be ‘over represented’ in those undertaking pupillage. It’s not as a result of some closed-shop.

Should the Oxbridge intake be more representative of society at large? Of course. As should other leading Universities and indeed the professions in general. What doesn’t help widen that representation are lazy myths perpetrated by those who should know better, and which influence those that don’t, that Oxbridge students are exclusively male, upper-middle class, privately educated and English.

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Uncle Solicitor

Oxbridge Oxbridge Oxbridge. There, I feel better already. I do remember my days there, thinking about the wonderful blonde sitting in the row in front. She was a right ‘jumper girl’ and I would give her ( . Y . ) / 10 – regularly. Each lecture in fact. I felt like being at Oxford was a privilege, not a right. And in fact looking around the room I couldn’t see many of my former peers from my private school days. Why was that I wondered? I know why now. They all mostly went to other universities to do things like engineering, medicine, law, architecture, vet science, dentistry, accounting and science. Only a few went to Oxbridge. Why? Well, it was a long way from London for one and they thought that it was more important to live life than be some kind of modern cultist fucktard who was nothing more than a product of Brand Oxbridge. After all, they let all kinds into Oxbridge, but only a select few could actually go to the school we did.

Our obsession with Oxbridge is as ridiculous as our obsession with biscuits, tea and other cultural icons that demand a Pavlovian response. We love it – the rest of the universe just think we carry on like a bunch of fucktards as they enter planes, operating theaters and lawyers offices all managed and run by pilots, doctors and lawyers who do their work at the highest levels of competence and who couldn’t care less if their nephew little Bobby was going to Oxbridge or another faculty of ordinary competence.

Oxbridge is not magic. It is a brand – and a false choice.

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Edward Machin

So “life skills” = pupilage success? I don’t think so.

And you’re advocating what, exactly? Russell Group instead of Oxbridge? Why only Russell Group? Surely there are “your sort” at polys with just the same life skills and ability. Why not them, too?

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Anthony Dursi

Errr… Oxbridge is part of the Russell Group?!

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CurtisMayfield

Isn’t a Russell Group graduate just a euphemism for someone who failed to get into Oxbridge? Those who went to Durham, for example, permanently carry around the chip on their shoulder!

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pibarrister

*wonders which ‘..course I studied had a far more innovative curriculum, and was far more daring generally, than the sort of course delivered in an Oxbridge college rooted permanently in the mists of time.’….Media Studies?*

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James

Since you didn’t go to Oxbridge, would you care to expand on what evidence allows you to say your experience was any better?

Or is it just a bunch of old and tiresome stereotypes?

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Edward Machin

Also, is this not one of the most cringeworthy sentences ever written? Too far even for parody, Alex.

“Sitting now as I do at my writing table after another day assisting on an international sustainability project, the tropical sun setting on the verdant green hills through the window in front of me, London seems far, far away, as if it were another time, another world.”

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Martin

Weird skull guy suggests something he did as thing Bar should emulate. Next week- why all pupils should have been forced to go on long internships…

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The Bear

For some time I have rejected the Oxbridge bias thinking that this was a myth created by those who did not get a pupillage or lost out to an Oxbridge student. That was until I actually took the time to look at chambers and I must admit I looked at, initially, London based commercial chambers. Some very easy research showed that out of the top 10 commercial sets in London over the last 10 years have given pupillage to 94% Oxbridge students, 3% to red bricks, 2% to others and 1% mostly to Australian/Canadian or South African pupils. There are Chambers like Wilberforce, One Essex street, 20 Essex, et al who have almost exclusively Oxbridge members. You can look for yourself and you will find there are chambers who have ONLY Oxbrtidge students. As stated this is applies to the commercial bar, the criminal bar is less swayed by Oxbridge.

The lies from the BSB that the Bar is diverse and healthy is just that, a lie. The problem with the system started with the gross payments to pupils, whispers of £70,000 guaranteed have been offered and advertised at £65,000 FOR A PUPIL! The we have the BVC/BPTC/ whatever they want to call it next producing students by the thousands each year for only a few hundred places, This is just plain stupidity and a problem the BSB and other run from. The problem extends not only to far to many students looking for pupillage but students with tens of thousands of Pounds of debt thinking they will get a pupillage because that is what the providers were telling them.

With all problems I believe there is a solution – here is mine, remove the minimum wage and get the BSB to implement a maximum of £24,000 to be paid to pupils. this will allow Chambers to take in more pupils. To take the BVC/BPTC a student MUST already have a pupillage this will stop the madness of producing wannabe pupils and also “encourage ” the providers to get chambers to take on more pupils. Remove the power from the providers and get it back to the Inns who have a vested interest in the success of the profession. The Providers could not care they will just offer a new course in boiling water if the BPTC moves on as it should because it is close to useless as a professional course. Then the application system -LOL- this is just bloody stupid, scrap it allow students to apply for pupillage whenever they want and get Chambers to organize themselves and pull themselves into the 21 century with an HR department, it is going to happen sooner rather than later. Who the hell waits almost 18 months to start a new job and why? Applications – well have an application that does not show a University offer interviews to everyone JUST on the merits not on the University. If the Bar does not wake up the solicitors are coming to get us and take the business of the Bar.

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The Bear

Lets add to this unfunded pupillage should also be allowed, so what is some students can afford to pay for the education- what a concept!

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Oxy

The Bar is a bastion of impressive diversity stats when it comes to gender and race. Where it is a less diverse profession is when measured by educational attainment. Everyone who makes it is spectacularly intelligent and went to a top university. By top, I mean Oxbridge, and the best two in London. As the Bar shrinks down, why should anyone else get a look in? Because a load of bog-standard Russell Group 2:1-ers couldn’t get into Fountain Court, even though they think they’ve got really good client skills, and did a season in Val?

It’s not the Bar’s place to make up for crap teachers, useless comps, social engineering and lack of aspiration. Chambers just take the people with the best qualifications. They like Oxbridge people, even if those aspirant pupils who failed to get in don’t like it. If you want to be a barrister, go to Oxford. It’s one of the world’s best universities. Just do it, and get a first. Is that really so hard to understand?

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The Bear

So if it is that simple. Tell me, why when competing in national moots non Oxbridge students beat Oxbridge, have better degrees and are more accomplished advocates yet do not get pupillage? It would be fair to let you know I have that strange thing called a double first from Oxford and have a BCL and that my argument is not for me but for excellent students I see coming into a chambers and been turned away because they did not attend Oxbridge. A case in point, a student with an LLb from City, LLm from Kings College, and BVC from BPP. Top mooting in both university and national moots, never out of a final, consultant to Swiss Private equity company, carries out research for numerous high profile cases, highly recommended by all he has worked with. NOT one pupillage interview and was told he should have gone to Oxford.

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Doubting Thomas

I can’t comment on the entire CV of the specific person, but other than his mooting achievements, the rest is quite average. City law school is not that impressive, nor is Kings (sorry) (you didn’t mention his grades). Don’t really see how consulting to a PE firm is relevant. With those unis on my CV (at least without good firsts in both) I wouldn’t expect to get an interview, let alone an offer.

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Oxy

Crap undergrad university.

Anything else I can help with?

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noremanboremanreturns

Oxford does not award double firsts. In only a couple of the original Mods. subjects are the first set of exams graded as 1st, 2.1, etc; and even in those, the correct usage is not to combine with Finals or Greats results. Some people who read Lit. Hum. make a reasonable argument for it, as they are examined in one set of subjects for Mods. and potentially an entirely separate set for Greats. (Therefore akin to Trypos at Cambridge, which does award Double Firsts to those with Firsts in each leg). Certainly anyone who sat Prelims and not Mods should not claim an Oxford Double First. It’s just a First, and well done on that!

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Doubting Thomas

So Alex moves on from his bitterness at not getting pupillage (as he has now *achieved* this, through this persona) to his bitterness at being rejected by Oxbridge. “Perhaps this national fixation would make sense if no other universities existed in this country other than polytechnics, but that is patently not the case. Britain has a plethora of centres of excellence for undergraduate learning, at the head of which lies the Russell Group…”. The national fixation is there, due to the fact that Oxbridge is consistently at the top of the world rankings. The Russell Group is a joke, stretching from universities which are obviously high achieving, like Oxbridge, LSE, UCL to those that are markedly less so (Southampton, Cardiff, Exeter etc). Whilst no one is saying that the latter are bad universities, equally, no one is putting them in the same bracket as Oxbridge (and some London universities), and it would be redundant to do so. The reason that Oxbridge is favoured is the same reason that Harvard, Princeton et al get the same kudos in America. Because they’re better. So deal with it, and move on.

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Uncle Solicitor

Harvard, Yale, etc are not considered in the same way as Oxbridge. Not at all. The Ivy League is not even the same as the Russell Group. It’s a group used for sporting competition – nothing more than that. Likewise to the US, in Australia, Canada and other countries that are federations there is a constellation of universities in each state from which the profession draws its talent. The oldest faculties are not considered the best by virtue of just being old. If you get into the top 1% – 5%, that’s enough. You don’t need to be in the top 1% of the top 1%. In fact, the tier of top performing US, Australian and Canadian secondary school students’ results belong in a smaller percentage at the top than our A level ones, so the first few top tiers can get into law. They do well enough, it seems.

Our obsession with Oxford and Cambridge is becoming an international joke.

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Doubting Thomas

Your comment doesn’t make any sense. What does this even mean: “If you get into the top 1% – 5%, that’s enough. You don’t need to be in the top 1% of the top 1%. In fact, the tier of top performing US, Australian and Canadian secondary school students’ results belong in a smaller percentage at the top than our A level ones, so the first few top tiers can get into law. “. Top % of what? And I’m aware the Ivy League is something else- thus why I didn’t mention it. You didn’t even address any of the points I made, other than spouting (likely) guesstimated statistics. And Oxbridge isn’t considered the best because it’s old- it’s because it’s the best. And if our so-called obsession is becoming an ‘international joke’ (er, where?), why do the international rankings consistently place Oxbridge at/near the top?

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Uncle Solicitor

The fact that you believe those international ‘rankings’ says it all. How is Oxford a good choice for a student in Toronto, Melbourne or Boston? It isn’t. It might be a good choice for someone living around Oxford, but frankly many students from London do not see it as a good destination – at all.

The point about the statistics is this. A top tier student from any state or province in the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand – or India will be as competent as those from here who get into Oxford Law. The difference will be that they are likely to be more worldly than many Oxford students are. If you think that a student who gets into law at UCLA, UNSW, Dalhousie etc is going to be less elite – ie come out as a less effective lawyer in the real world – than one at Oxford, I can’t help you.

None of the men who walked on the moon went to Oxford. Probably none or few of the engineers responsible for the Apollo missions attended Oxford. Oxford’s day of being the monopoly on ‘excellence’ has long past, except in the minds of those trying to keep up invented traditions.

Plenty of other universities around the world have similar ‘excellence’ to Oxford, but without banging on about it quite as much.

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TabGrad

You’re right about Oxford’s decline as the top institution of excellence, if it ever was. Cambridge is much better!

I’m afraid your comments about Oxford grads being unworldly is a load of rubbish, and as ridiculous as saying that people who haven’t been to Oxford can’t possibly be intelligent.

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Doubting Thomas

Whilst denying half the Oxbridge stereotype, ie, that they aren’t actually all that clever or good; you accept the other half, that any Oxbridge student is some cosseted, mollycoddled individual who’s never been down the street without mummy/nanny to hold his hand. And why is Oxford not a good choice for someone from Toronto/Harvard/Boston? Because it’s far away? You know we have planes for that sort of thing now? And telephones (and the internet!), so you can keep in touch with people all those miles away! And what students from London don’t see it as a good institution? I’m pretty sure they do. And a top tier student from *any* institution will be as good? On what basis to you make this? Have you met them all? You’re just creating vast assumptions. Of course some will be as good as Oxbridge graduates, that’s not in dispute. What is in dispute is whether in general, an Oxbridge graduate is likely to be better than a non-oxbridge graduate.
With regards to the moon, you are aware that was an American thing? You know they probably had a lot of highly educated americans on that mission? MIT, CalTech, etc? Cretinous point. And when is Oxford banging on about its excellence? The reason we hear about it more is because we’re in the UK. In case you were uncertain.

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TabGrad

Actually, many sets are now biased against Oxbridge applicants. I don’t want to sound like a sob story because obviously anyone who is serious about the Bar needs to take dozens of rejections on the chin, but I myself, and several of my GDL friends, had 1st class degrees from Oxford or Cambridge and were rejected without even a first round interview from many sets at which the most recent pupils and tenants had inferior academic backgrounds. Another friend of mine, who has a DPhil from Oxford and has been a lecturer, has been told outright by senior criminal practitioners that his CV will be binned by some criminal sets for looking too academic.

In any discussion about potential prejudice in the Bar recruitment process, of whatever kind, it needs to be remembered that chambers do not have HR departments and the first sift of application forms is frequently devolved down to younger tenants and there is no real moderation process. I’ve been told by a senior barrister during a visit to a set of chambers that they would never reject someone with a 1st, let alone an Oxbridge 1st, and yet I know more than one person (including myself) whom they rejected outright in spite of their Oxbridge 1sts. Clearly recruitment practice as conceived by senior tenants does not resemble what is happening “on the ground” when first round interviewees are called.

Blaming “Oxbridge elitism” is an excuse, and doesn’t reflect reality. Sets of chambers are capricious and idiosyncratic in their selection procedures, and it’s a case of swings and roundabouts.

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TabGrad

P.S. When I say “reject” in the second paragraph, I mean “reject without interview”.

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botzarelli

The criminal bar has always been sniffy about overacademic applicants – with good reason as criminal barristers spend most of their time trying to get answers from ordinary and often unacademic police officers, members of the public and defendants and presenting these in a way which is intelligible to the average juror. Sure, they also need to be sharp enough on the law to make submissions to the Judge and get on in appellate work but getting on to the big appellate cases isn’t the sole means of career advancement.

Curiously the time when there was the lowest level of Oxbridge entry into the Bar was probably in the late 80s when pupils often still paid their pupilmasters for the privilege of their time. Then, apart from those who really, really just wanted to be at the Bar (and the stars at the elite commercial sets where anything less than a BCL First was a bit dubious), most Oxbridge grads went to solicitors’ firms or the City because they paid so much better.

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TabGrad

Point taken about the criminal bar, but I’d say two things. The first is that the experience of inexplicable rejection of candidates with Oxbridge backgrounds from some sets of chambers is not something that’s confined to the criminal bar. Top commercial and chancery sets seem to love Oxbridge and some (civil) sets seem to dislike it and have a bias in favour of people from other Russell Group universities. The second thing is that it’s grossly unfair to assume that someone having a First or having been to Oxford or Cambridge, or having a higher degree, must make them donnish and incapable of dealing with the “ordinary world”. Lots of people I know have spent a lot of time doing more practical and people-skills based activities like volunteering, student journalism, debating, running organisations, sports, student politics, serving as JCR or student union presidents, drama and music, and yet still managed to get Firsts in their degrees. Assuming that “academic” people are bookish and have no people skills is completely absurd. Thankfully the Bar is pretty good at realising this, but there is still a latent prejudice in some sets that “academic” applicants will struggle to relate to “ordinary” clients.

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The Bear

How do you know other students had ” inferior academic backgrounds” ? That is the typical arrogant attitude that Oxbridge students have today. Chambers SHOULD have HR departments and this is not an excuse nor is there an excuses not to have one. Here we go again “never reject someone with a 1st, let alone an Oxbridge 1st,” What do you mean an Oxford 1st are you saying that a 1st from Oxford is better then that from Kings, LSE, City Bristol et al? As you have this Oxford 1st I take it the barrister you visited gave you pupillage? No, well then that means this is a lie and he did reject someone with an Oxbridge 1st. LOL- “capricious and idiosyncratic in their selection procedures, ” so you think Chambers are impulsive and unpredictable in their selection as well as having a peculiarity of members? Dear Lord is this how they teach you to communicate at Oxford nowadays?

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TabGrad

Perhaps I wasn’t clear. I said that I know many people with a 1st from Oxford or Cambridge (+ maybe a Masters or doctorate) who have been rejected without interview at sets whose most recent pupils and tenants have only an undergraduate 2.i from a university that isn’t in the top 5. You can look at recently called tenants’ academic profiles on the chambers websites. Clearly a 1st from anywhere, particularly a Russell Group university, is an excellent achievement. However, some universities are nevertheless harder to get into and set you much more work. Therefore, arguing that which university you attend shouldn’t affect the strength of an application and that it should just come down to your degree class simply isn’t realistic.

And yes, my point was that while I have been told by a senior barrister that his set would never refuse to interview someone with a 1st, I nevertheless know people with 1sts from top universities that this particular set turned down (including myself). Clearly this doesn’t add up. Therefore the recruitment policy / process as understood by more senior barristers does not resemble what occurs in practice at the initial sift stage.

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Uncle Solicitor

There’s no stopping the Oxford graduates. One such graduate – Merton College – recently authored a report – you may have heard of it – where Wikipedia was used as a source.

http://twitter.com/unclesolicitor/status/276291467885019136

But I digress. It’s not little examples of error such as this that prevent Oxford or Cambridge from being truly great. The point is that in the 21st Century they have a lot of very good competition which renders them both very good, not great. And see my other points made above.

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Justathought

To successfully compete against one of the never-ending and highly publicised “threats to the Bar” – Solicitor Advocates – we must work together to meet a high standard of client care, for which solicitors are famous and for which we are not. To do this, we need barristers that represent, or at least understand/have experience of, various aspects of society, which obviously includes both Oxbridge and non-Oxbridge graduates…and everyone else in between. Yes, intelligent and hard working etc, but *representative*. Otherwise, we’ll all be jobless. And most likely sat down the pub, arguing. Probably about universities.

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The Bear

Thought provoking lunch with 3 very senior members of the bar who openly admitted an Oxbridge bias in commercial sets. They laughed about the BSB report but also all agreed that the Bar as we knew it is dead because of it own self indulgence and complete failure to take seriously the threat from Solicitor Advocates. One said the Bar will become much smaller and highly and even more specialized taking on only very complex cases the other two said the Bar would cease to exists and all Solicitor Advocates would have right of audience at every level. As one put it, “we lost the battle because we moved to slowly contemplating our own navels as solicitors charged forward and modernized and set up shop like a real business. We always hid behind our wish to be independent and self employed but that was a sham” HONESTY at last, I paid for lunch and was happy to do so

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TabGrad

You had lunch with 3 senior barristers and they didn’t offer to pay for you? The Bar must really be on its way out!

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The Bear

I am not a pupil or student ( OH how I wish for those days) can pay my own way ;-0

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