Research has revealed a substantial difference in formal hall prices across Oxford colleges, with St Anne’s charging a whopping £11.50 for its weekly formal hall, whilst a comparable meal at Queen’s costs a mere £3.78.
Furthermore, Balliolites, who attend a weekly Tuesday night hall rather than formal hall are charged the most, shelling out £13.50 for the dinner.
Of the colleges who host formal halls on a more regular basis Christ Church students benefit from a bargain £2.20 hall, whilst University College students pay more than three times that sum.
While Wadham doesn’t host a formal hall, a daily three course meal is served to students for a reasonable price of £3.82.
The disparity in prices has been slated by undergraduates as having a dramatic and unfair influence on the lives and budgets of students at different colleges.
Holly Meehan, a second year linguist from Keble College, commented: “Even though Keble performs remarkably well in this survey it still seems unfair that I pay over double the price of students in Christ Church. There is no way I could have known the difference in prices before I applied for Keble and as such I made an uninformed decision.
“Over the course of my degree this will have the effect of costing me thousands of pounds which I could have avoided if colleges had made this information more available.”
Information on both formal hall prices and general catering prices at Oxford colleges is in many cases difficult to find on college websites, meaning the cash difference is not apparent to most undergraduates until they are already enrolled at a college.
Some students have been quick to defend the disparity in prices, saying that it merely represents a difference in quality between college catering.
Supporting the comparably higher formal hall at Univ, second year Christy Davis a praised the meals on offer as “restaurant quality,” and said the price actually represents remarkable value for money.
Similar sentiments regarding the formal hall price at Brasenose were expressed by Charlotte Ward, a first year Historian. She said: “I think it’s superb value for money and generally very good quality. It’s not how I imagined student living!
“The food is in fact of a much superior standard to normal hall and can be quite adventurous.”
Supporting the argument that lower prices reflect lower quality, an anonymous Christ Church second year student spoke out about their formal hall, saying: “Formal hall is only MLQ [Medium-Low Quality]”.
“The problem is that we have it every night and it’s always the same as our normal hall. [Formal hall] is not bad per se, but everyone is slightly disappointed as you’d expect a lot more.”
As expected, there is also a strong correlation between the pricing of colleges’ formal halls and college endowments.
The two cheapest formal halls on offer were at Christ Church and St John’s – the colleges with the largest financial endowments. This was also exemplified by similarly subsidised meals offered by Merton, the college with the fourth largest endowment, and the Queen’s College, the college with the fifth largest endowment. However, in contrast with this trend, Worcester College had the third cheapest price out of the colleges with more than thrice weekly formal halls, despite its financial endowment ranking considerably lower than the other top five colleges for formal hall subsidies.
Flora Sheldon, a St John’s fresher said: “I think we are really lucky here at St John’s to have one of the cheapest formal halls.
“It encourages many people to eat in hall which encourages a friendly and happy environment with relationships forming across year groups.”
Colleges have taken different measures to ensure students continue to pay for college catering, including formal hall. At Pembroke, freshers are required to make a compulsory purchase of £266.07 at the start of term, which can subsequently be used to pay for their £7.50 formal hall, which happens three times a week. This compulsory purchase was introduced to boost hall numbers after a number of years of falling attendance.
This move has attracted criticism from Pembroke students who argue that compulsory hall is not the way to improve attendance, but that the hall should instead concentrate on improving quality and making the food better value for money.
A Pembroke first year, who would rather remain anonymous, commented: “I don’t like the compulsory halls, mostly because of the way that we have to pay for all the meals, including those that we don’t attend due to other activities such as clubs etc.
“Also, it means that it is very rare that I will eat with friends from other colleges because it is effectively the cost of the meal, plus the cost of the meal I am not having at Pembroke. To eat with other friends then costs a fortune, and I don’t think it should.”
*The research included only colleges who cater for undergraduate students.