Should the Oxford collegiate system be subject to greater centralisation?

Comment University/Local Issues

Image description: An aerial view of Oxford, including the Radcliffe Camera and other college buildings.

‘Oxford’s 38 colleges and six permanent private halls are both an integral part of the collegiate University and also independent, self-governing academic communities. Diverse in age, size and scope, all contribute significantly to the core activities of the University:  learning and teaching; research; and wider engagement with society.’  – The Conference of Colleges

The collegiate system plays an important role in the Oxford experience, contributing to university diversity and introducing a sense of friendly inter-college competition that facilitates engagement with multiple aspects of university life.

However, whilst college independence should definitely be maintained, significant differences in how colleges treat their students and alumni mean that not all Oxonians are presented with equal opportunities, a circumstance that is regrettable and needs to be rectified. Moreover, during times of crisis such as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, there must be some sort of centralised university policy so that all colleges are best equipped to protect their members.

For many sixth-formers looking to apply for university, the colleges are one of Oxford’s main selling points. Being able to pick a college during the application process allows prospective students to start personalising their Oxford experience before they have even been admitted.

Whether it’s the mighty rowing crews of Pembroke and Oriel, the consistently solid academic reputations of Merton and Magdalen, or the famous choirs of Christ Church and New, each college has its respective strengths and weaknesses that allow students to pursue their interests at a world-class level. In this aspect, greater centralisation would mean lesser diversity, and Oxford would lose out on so much that makes it interesting.

Greater centralisation would mean lesser diversity, and Oxford would lose out on so much that makes it interesting.

Colleges, of course, are much more than just accommodation halls – they are also societies. The system instils a sense of college pride and camaraderie amongst students that results in friendly competition between colleges, adding an extra incentive for self-improvement.

Moreover, whilst in other universities students might stay within cliques based around their main interests, Oxford’s arrangement almost forces students from vastly different backgrounds to socialise due to proximity of residence. This encourages students to engage and become emotionally invested in many more aspects of university life that may not have concerned them otherwise, whether it be an inter-college sport, university publications, or the Norrington Table.

Nevertheless, too much variety can also be a problem.

With independent colleges comes independent teaching cultures, independent endowments, and independent communities. For example, medical students might have anything up to 4 tutorials are week depending on their college, not to mention significant variation on how much work each tutor sets.

Of course, both styles have their merits and students will have their individual preferences, but somebody that responds well to one form might not necessarily agree with the other. This is problematic given that once one has been admitted to Oxford, one can’t suddenly decide to switch to a different college on account of not liking their current one.

Budget is also a rather controversial topic. There are substantial differences in endowment value between colleges and this results in equally substantial differences in student experience. It certainly doesn’t make sense that two students going to the same university should pay vastly different rent for accommodation of comparable quality or receive vastly different subsidies for food and academic purchases.

Of course, the university already has various mechanisms in place to alleviate the inequality – St John’s, for example, is prohibited from providing subsidies for college sport-related purchases – but more things could be done. Oxford could consider limiting the number of donations very rich colleges can receive and redistributing the difference amongst the less wealthy colleges.

The argument for greater centralization is especially pertinent during the coronavirus pandemic. Restrictions of various strictness has led to students from more heavy-handed colleges sneaking into more relaxed ones, resulting in gatherings of much greater size than would otherwise have been expected.

To resolve this issue, Oxford might want to present a more united front against Covid-19, setting out uniform guidelines to be followed by all colleges. Thus, students won’t feel their particular college has received the short end of the stick and won’t resort to extreme measures to gain back some semblance of a social life.

The pandemic is serious enough to merit some restriction of individual college freedoms, allowing the university’s combined medical expertise to decide how best to stop the spread of coronavirus.

A centralised university-wide response should also not be limited to uniform guidelines but must take into account the cultural differences between colleges. Somerville’s restrictions are relatively standard but due to a culture of mutual trust between staff and students, it has done much better than colleges with stricter rules in terms of the number of positive cases because its members are more willing to follow the guidelines.

The pandemic is serious enough to merit some restriction of individual college freedoms, allowing the university’s combined medical expertise to decide how best to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In a centralised response, similar colleges would require less attention than those with a more ‘us-vs-them’ mentality amongst the students. After all, guidelines don’t matter if college staff are unwilling to enforce them and college students will take every opportunity to find loopholes.

Overall, the independence of Oxford’s various colleges is a valuable asset for the university and is something that needs to be preserved.  However, for certain financial aspects of university life, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, greater centralisation would be very welcome.

Image credit: https://www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/colleges/a-z-of-colleges