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Oxford college bans octopus from menu in bid to make disadvantaged students feel more 'comfortable'

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 17/01/2019 Camilla Turner
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An Oxford college president has demanded that octopus is removed from the menu as part of a drive to make disadvantaged students feel more “comfortable”.

Baroness Jan Royall, head of Somerville, said she wants to “change the culture” of the college to make sure it is “welcoming for all”.

The Labour peer told how after receiving a complaint from a first-year student about an octopus terrine dish, she instructed Somerville’s catering staff to replace it with a less adventurous alternative.

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The eight-legged dish, which featured as the starter at the Freshers’ welcome dinner last year, will not appear on the menu at next year’s event.

Baroness Royall, the former Labour leader in the House of Lords, revealed the move in a blog post, titled “I am determined to move fast on widening access to Somerville”, which was published on the College’s website.

In the blog, she outlines the steps the College has taken to boost the number of students it admits from disadvantaged backgrounds, which included running a “Demystifying Oxford Day” where state school students are given mock interviews.

“We already work closely with schools, but I feel sure that there is more we can do to build a teacher network that will encourage more strong candidates to apply, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she wrote.

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“I also want to turn the spotlight on ourselves, and ask how we should change the culture of Somerville and Oxford to ensure that we are welcoming to all.

“One of our students told me of her bemusement at being served an octopus terrine at the Freshers’ Dinner.

“I’m sure the cephalopod dish was delicious, but it might not be quite right for everyone. I have asked our catering colleagues to ensure that the first dinner at the beginning of term features dishes everyone is comfortable with.”

Somerville students greeted the move with mixed responses, with one calling it “tokenistic”.

He said:  “Whilst this move appears to be a demonstration of the college taking access seriously, it’s more tokenistic than a serious step to improve access into the college. It also implies that octopus, and certain food dishes, are not for people from a particular background and should be reserved for the privilege few.”

Another Somerville undergraduate added: “Serving eccentric meals at the first dinner may have been off-putting to many students from disadvantaged background, but there are more important things to focus on it terms of reform.”

However, Joe Inwood, president of Oxford University’s student union, praised the move, saying: “It is great to see colleges listen to feedback from students and change the culture of a college to be more open to all.”

Some Oxford colleges removed formal hall altogether in recent years in a bid to become more inclusive, in 2014 Wadham College made the decision to replace it with a termly “guest night”.

Universities are under pressure to increase the number of students they admit from deprived backgrounds. Last year almost three quarters (72.6 per cent) of Somerville's offers were made to state school students, which is significantly higher than Oxford’s average.

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Somerville was founded in 1879 as one of Oxford’s first female-only Colleges. Named after the Scottish mathematician and scientist Mary Somerville, it and was also the university’s first non-denominational college.

Its alumni include the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the pacifist Vera Brittain and the crime writer Dorothy Sayers. Men have been accepted at the College since 1994.

A spokesman for the College said: “When it comes to diet, there are plenty of differences between cultures and religions. We don’t make any assumptions about what our students will or won’t eat based on their social or cultural background.

“The point of education is to widen horizons, including introducing students to new tastes. But we want to make sure that, at the Freshers’ Dinner at least, food is served that everyone is likely to be comfortable with.”

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