St Benet’s Hall to temporarily halt undergrad admissions amid dire financial straits

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Article Updates:

18th December 2021 to include the joint statement from Oxford University and St Benet’s Hall, as well as additional information.

19th December 2021 to alter the headline, making clear the temporary nature of the pause in undergraduate admissions.

 

The Oxford Student can exclusively reveal that St Benet’s Hall will no longer be permitted to accept undergraduates due to its precarious financial situation following its separation from Ampleforth Abbey, the current owners of the buildings that comprise the Hall’s facilities.

 

A joint statement from the University and St Benet’s Hall, received on the 18th December, said that “These discussions are ongoing but it has become clear that the Hall’s financial prospects are so uncertain that the University cannot be confident that the Hall can support a new undergraduate cohort for the full duration of their studies from the next academic year. The University and St Benet’s Hall have regretfully concluded that the Hall should withdraw from the current undergraduate admissions process and the Hall will not admit any new undergraduate students in October 2022.”

The statement goes on to say that “The situation remains under constant review to find a solution for all parties. Staff and students are being kept informed and we understand the situation makes this a difficult time for them”, and concludes that “The University’s priority is that the experience and education of all students studying at St Benet’s Hall should continue without disruption. Education will continue as normal for this academic year and safeguards are being put in place to guarantee St Benet’s students’ education for the following academic years.”

 

St Benet’s Hall is a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford, operating under licence from the University. The Permanent Private Halls were founded by Christian denominations, and their students have the same access to University courses and facilities as those at colleges. St Benet’s was originally set up in 1897 by the Benedictine community of monks at Ampleforth Abbey in North Yorkshire to enable members of the monastic community of Ampleforth to undertake studies at Oxford. Today St Benet’s Hall it is governed by the St Benet’s Trust, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ampleforth Abbey Trust. 

 

In an email circulated to all students of St Benet’s Hall earlier this week on the 17th December, Professor Martin S. Williams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Education) and Dr Richard Cooper, the Master of the PPH stated:

“We are writing to let you know that, following discussions between the University, the Hall and Ampleforth Abbey Trust, the University has taken the decision not to permit St Benet’s Hall to admit any new undergraduates in the next academic year. This was a very difficult decision to take, and whilst this does not affect you directly, we understand that you will be concerned by this news.

However, we would like to reassure you that this decision does not affect current students, and that your studies will continue as normal.”

 

In a more personalised addition to the email from the Hall staff, the message explained that the Hall hopes to purchase both buildings (38 St Giles, and 11 Norham Gardens) from Ampleforth Abbey Trust over the coming months. This is part of a wider strategy that St Benet’s Hall is pursuing to reach college status, with this most recent decision representing part of a legal separation of St Benet’s Trust from the Abbey.

The Hall describes it as “a complex process” and reassured students that they will be regularly updated on progress and that the Hall’s overriding concern is “to protect the interests of our students and staff.”

However, in a meeting open to all Benet’s students and held by the Senior Tutor, Dr Bernard Gowers and students over Teams, it was also stated that:

“The hall will continue to operate for the rest of this academic year. I don’t know what will happen from Michaelmas Term 2022.”

When asked if there was a possibility that the Hall might no longer exist next year, Dr Gowers said “Yes… However, all students will still be members of the university.”

It was also revealed that “Different members of staff have known at different stages…[the decision had been in the works for] quite some time”. When asked why the Hall continued to admit students despite knowing the likelihood of closure and the ceasing of new admissions, Dr Gowers stated “That was not my decision” and further elaborated that Ampleforth Abbey Trust made an independent decision to sell the buildings, which would not be “decoupling” and instead “about not having sufficient resources”.

St Benet’s Hall’s current residence at 38 St Giles, one of the two buildings in dispute.

 

Ampleforth Abbey, which has been connected with St Benet’s Hall since 1897, has been plagued by misfortune in recent years.

In 2017, a report found credible allegations of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse perpetrated by monks and lay members of Ampleforth. Further issues were raised about some monks with regards to grooming, inappropriate touching, and pornography addiction. The Ampleforth monks named from the report included: Fr. Piers Grant-Ferris, Fr. Gregory Carroll, Fr. Bernard Green (who died in 2013), and a number of unidentified monks. This followed the conviction of Fr. Piers Grant-Ferris 2006 on twenty counts of indecent assault, and the conviction and imprisonment of Fr. Gregory Carroll for over 20 years for his offenses of child abuse.

Most recently, the Abbey Trust has experienced a relatively recent and sudden drop in income coupled with an immediate need to repay a loan because of their purchase of the Norham Gardens building according to Hall staff. Separate analysis indicated that without an immediate separation this could have potentially have been caught up in repayment or defaulting on this loan.

In a financial report from August 2019, it was concluded that:

“The present level of both free and restricted reserves is substantially less than required for the future sustainability of the Hall and therefore the Hall is actively seeking to increase its annual fundraising income so that it can carry out its objectives without the need for funding support from its parent charity in the future. In the meantime, the charity has received a guarantee of support from its parent, the Ampleforth Abbey Trust.” It appears that this guarantee of support has been withdrawn.

 

In the email to students, it was confirmed that St Benet’s Hall was struggling financially, explaining: “the University asked us to demonstrate that we would own both our buildings next academic year, and this has not yet been possible.”

Dr Gowers clarified that the situation was not greatly affected by COVID or by St Benet’s Hall not inherently being a college. In March of this year, during the height of the pandemic, students and staff at St Benet’s wrote an open letter to Prof. Woudhuysen (rector of Lincoln College and Chair of the Conference of Colleges) asking for access, on behalf of PPHs, to the College Contribution Schemes 6 & 7 (COVID-19 Emergency Scheme). The scheme stated that it had been founded “to support those colleges facing particularly pressing and potentially destabilizing challenges as a result of the impact of COVID-19” yet a meeting of the Conference of Colleges had voted against allowing access to PPHs.

Despite this unwelcome news for students, Dr Gowers tried to reassure them that “There are lots of negotiations with potential donors.” Although the administration could not provide any more information on these donors, there remains hope that sufficient funds could be raised to purchase the Hall’s buildings.

 

 

It is unclear whether the Hall will continue to admit graduate students, and the future of the Fellows remains unclear.

 

Image credit: Chen Chen

 

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