Let me say this as clearly as possible, without pretensions of politeness or gratitude: the graduate admissions system at Oxford, by which the candidates are assigned to a particular college, is nothing short of scandalous and dictatorial. Where the process is not clandestine and irritating, it is downright impolite and arrogant to the point of presumption.
In many ways, undergraduates are the lucky ones. They are explicitly told that it is the colleges that handle their admissions, organise the interviews, and effectively support and nurture them for the duration of their individual courses. The process is made more transparent by the open availability of all the relevant statistics: how many students applied to each college, what were their backgrounds, ethnicities, grades and how they were shuffled around before being finally offered a place.
Alas, I wish that the graduates had a system that were at least half as transparent! To be fair, the first part of the admissions process, whereby the relevant faculty decides whether it is worthwhile to let you pay £25,000 a year to undertake research at Oxford, is simple enough. Thereafter, however, your application becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between the colleges and the faculties. If you had specified a college in your application, the documents go to them after what seems like a year, and more often than not, they reject you. The more arrogant of the colleges do not even bother telling the candidates they have been rejected, and nor does the faculty. Too many applicants, they quip, and neither the £50 application fee nor the £3,000 college fee is enough for the basic courtesy of reply. Then, usually, your application is passed on to the college with the least number of applicants, or is assigned to another college at random, depending on the faculty in question. What’s abominable about this aspect of the application is that, when a college rejects you, and if they let you know of it at all, you don’t get any say in choosing another college. The faculty, or a computer, decides your fate, and you have to abide by it. Reject an offer from a college, and you reject the offer from the faculty as well. With us or against us, remember?
Oxford must think that once you have finished your undergraduate degree, which college you end up in does not matter. That’s why they don’t even bother to put up the relevant statistics online. All we know are how many students ended up at each college, not how many indicated a preference for one place over another, and certainly not how many ended up in the college of their preference. The presumption is that you’ll be a lonely scholar at your faculty library, hardly spending any time at your college. How else would you explain that in the application form, the applicants can merely specify one ‘preference’ for a college? At Cambridge, they at least have the decency to allow two choices. If the first one rejects you, the second one considers it. With Oxford, you don’t have that say. Rather, this is an underhand way to ensure that the exhorbitant sums one pays in fees goes to all colleges, and not merely the popular or reputable ones. That’s why, unlike for undergraduates, it’s not even necessary to have a Fellow in your college who takes some interest in your work. I’m a student of German Literature, and the last German Fellow in my college has just retired. I am, so to speak, academically adrift at Teddy Hall. But, why should that matter, as long as the College and the University get my fees?
The whole affair is richly ironic given the way Oxford boasts of its collegiate structure as its unique selling-point. Each college is an independent institution, we are told, with its own distinct culture, and it offers students both an academic and social home for the duration of their course. Then how silly is it not to have any say in deciding where your home is for up to four or five years, and how arrogant of Oxford to force an external choice upon us.
The truth is, the choice of college is as important for graduates as it is for undergraduates. The prevailing ethos of the college dictates your social life, and your ability to form and sustain friendships at and beyond Oxford. It is our first port of call away from the faculty, where we talk about things, besides work, that engage and drive us. There is nothing worse than ending up in a college where you find you have little in common with most people: a person whose primary passions lie in arts and literature will have little to relish in an atmosphere where there are fifteen sports associations, but none for painting or theatre. Or worse, imagine ending up as a gay man at a college that seems to you, by virtue of its ethos, routinely homophobic. With migration between colleges almost impossible, a student miserable at his college will have to remain miserable for the duration of his stay. Is this what Oxford wants?
The University and the Colleges deserve a severe reprimand, and the issue can no longer be gently brushed under the carpet merely because we’ve made it to the high-and-mighty Oxford. Even the best of universities are only as good as their students and their satisfaction. I, for one, am not happy.