Why it’s time to think beyond the porters’ lodge

Is the collegiate system all it’s cracked up to be? It is certainly something which seems to be by and large immune from criticism, an institution we prize for all the wonderful things we are told about it in access workshops that for the most part are blindly accepted as fact.

I certainly do not set out to argue that the collegiate system does not have its benefits, and considerable ones. It enables us to develop a unique relationship with our tutors, that is able to come far closer than many other systems to the pedagogic ideal of undergraduate and tutor in a shared and personalised partnership of academic development. It enables variation from the one-size-fits-all model one might find at large universities and provide services at a devolved and therefore more responsive level. Then there is the social side, the fact that freshers’ week and the student experience in general is a far less daunting prospect in the small environment of a college where people can integrate quickly. It is no surprise that alumna develop close attachments to their colleges and many choose to maintain a relationship long after graduation. We are certainly privileged to have thirty-eight-odd halls, bars, junior common rooms, et al. This said, the high level of facility provision and of course the tutorial system itself would surely exist in a counterfactual Oxford without colleges but with the same vast amount of capital and assets.

There is a downside to the collegiate system, as there will be to any mode of organising academia, and it is time we start being more honest about that. Firstly, the close-knit social nature of colleges has its drawbacks. Anecdotes from people I know at a number of colleges suggest social cliques springing up rapidly in a way that they cannot in the diffuse culture of the wider university. The size of colleges can all too easily make them an extension of school, with all which that implies. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, or knows someone who does, and if you are experiencing a problem there is nowhere really to hide. A common room can be an incredibly welcoming or an incredibly ostracising space, depending on who you are and under what circumstances. Then this all too easily filters into representative organs, given the power university students have vis a vis school students. JCR elections become neither political nor administrative, but all too often a popularity contest to an even greater extent than student unions. Controversy cannot be discussed for the fear of damaging the artificial and often fallacious ‘unity’ of colleges. The concept of student unionism becomes depoliticised and authoritarian by nature of that in a creepingly informal way. That might be more acceptable if we had a participatory student representative organ at the centre, and yet OUSU is currently inefficient for such a task and mired in apathy which collegiate culture can help to ingrain. And whilst college rivalries can be friendly fun, there are more people than might at first be assumed that take them seriously, and sooner or later vitriolic jokes at the expense of colleges not lucky enough to be blessed with fifteenth-century quadrangles just gets a little dull after a while.

Inequality between colleges is another major issue. Beyond rent statistics in alternative prospectuses, which not all applicants read, incoming students are utterly unprepared for the material difference college choice can make, and the desire of colleges to attract students perpetuates that. A not-so-wealthy Exonian or Magdalenite might have not chosen their college had they known a stealthy and extortionate catering charge had been shoehorned in. Whilst academic quality is of course static across colleges, we do not have equality of resources despite the fact that as a university we are perfectly capable of providing a high universal standard. Besides, the relative lack of central oversight power from either university or student union enables college authorities to ossify and become unaccountable. There are cases too numerous to mention of colleges using tradition and their seemingly-unchecked informal power to get away with all sorts, including wildly extortionate fines, snap evictions, rustications with no chance of adequate representation, academic discipline that pays no account to students’ personal issues or mental health complications and sidelining staff pay and conditions.

We cannot and should not abandon collegialism. But we can be honest about the fact that it is not a one-sided picture of perfection. The assumption that colleges provide all hinders maximum-quality central provision. The merging of college welfare, discipline and academic involvement alongside personally-influenced JCR welfare structure can alienate people from seeking college support, and despite some impressive services our central services are insufficient, as are our structures of student representation. Our student body and system of a whole has to start thinking beyond the porters’ lodge, retaining the benefits of colleges whilst arguing for an expanded university-based culture for a twenty-first century Oxford.