The Oxford college system


in Daily updates, Oxford

Keble College

When it comes to international students, Oxford could do a better job of explaining the college system and the differences between the colleges. To most aspiring Oxford graduates from abroad, the choice of college is just one of hundreds of boxes to be filled in on the application. More than half of the international graduates who I polled chose their college more on the basis of its location than any other factor.

After a year here, I have come to appreciate differing collegiate cultures. To some extent, that is embedded in a way that really carries over from year to year. At another level, there are fairly wild swings in demographics, temperments, and styles of relationships; this is because a great deal about the graduate intake of colleges is random. If people had a better sense of what (if anything) the Oxford colleges stand for, beyond what reading a few pages in Wikipedia might offer, it might serve both to improve their own experiences here and strengthen and foster the development of distinctive cultures at different colleges.

I chose Wadham College primarily because Sarah P recommended it, and because it seemed to be old, central, and have nice grounds. It has a reputation for being left wing, but I have never seen any actual political energy expended there. The Queer Bop, far from being some kind of affirmation of homosexual equality, is mostly just a self-indulgent and hedonistic heterosexual booze fest. The single best thing about Wadham is probably the beauty of the grounds and gardens but, given that it is not an especially famous college, no Oxford student would have the slightest trouble visiting those unhindered by the kind of bowler-hatted bouncers I have been threatened and expelled by at Magdalen, University, and Christ Church. All things considered, I do not regret the choice, on the whole, even if I do look with envy at the international relations collections held by the libraries at Nuffield and Saint Antony’s.

For incoming graduate students of politics or international relations, I would recommend either applying to Saint Antony’s – if you care about being with a large group of graduates with similar interests and good facilities serving them – or one of the very old, grand colleges – if you care more about the ivied Oxford punting side of things than which books will be in your library. Options in the latter camp include Magdalen (perhaps the most attractive college), Christ Church, University, Merton, and New (founded in 1379). Those are all fairly central, as well. Balliol, Trinity, Exeter, and St. John’s are all nice, central colleges that I know too little about to speak on with any authority.

I am especially interested in what other Oxonians may have to say about all of this. Doubtless, there are many who will disagree, and, quite possibly, some who will take offense to seeing this or that college characterized in this or that way. I only have extensive experience with Wadham, Saint Cross, Nuffield, and Saint Antony’s. Thus, anything written about other colleges should be considered little better than hearsay.

[Update: 7:45pm] All comments above about libraries pertain only to international relations collections. Those studying other things may be presented with an entirely different spectrum of appeal.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous October 5, 2006 at 7:15 pm

For the numerically minded, there is always the Norrington Table to consider. An academic ranking of the Oxford colleges, it has plenty of problems of methodology (not least that the spread between first and tenth place tends to be tiny, causing random noise to cause seemingly big jumps), but it is still an object of obsession for some.

Going down the 2006 rankings, to your college:

1 Merton College
2 Balliol College
3 Magdalen College [joint 3rd]
4 New College [joint 3rd]
5 St John’s College
6 Christ Church
7 Wadham College

Anonymous October 5, 2006 at 7:17 pm

The official tables from the university. Note that this consider only undergraduate exam performance.

Milan October 5, 2006 at 7:19 pm

As such, all graduate colleges like Nuffield, St. Antony’s, and St. Cross will not be included. Also, the listings may grossly misrepresent rates of postgraduate success as a function of a college’s table position.

Chris Brooke October 5, 2006 at 7:30 pm

“The Queer Bop, far from being some kind of affirmation of homosexual equality, is mostly just a self-indulgent and hedonistic heterosexual booze fest.”

The decline of the Wadham Queer Bop is sad. It used to be a fine event, and genuinely Queer.

On College applications: “if you care more about the ivied Oxford punting side of things than which books will be in your library”, then please *don’t* apply to Magdalen (the College I’ve just left), which has an excellent library, which is only able to take a small fraction of the graduate students who apply there for degrees in Politics, IR and related subjects, and which strongly prefers its graduate students to be more interested in books than punts.

Jack October 5, 2006 at 7:56 pm

Can you simply not use the libraries at other colleges? What do you if yours doesn’t have a book you need?

Milan October 5, 2006 at 8:01 pm

Can you simply not use the libraries at other colleges? What do you if yours doesn’t have a book you need?

Generally, you can only use your own college library, the Bodleian, and faculty or departmental libraries to which you belong.

As a politics or IR graduate, the Social Sciences Library will probably be your most important port of call for books. But when 28 people are scrambling for the same relatively obscure text on Middle Eastern politics, having a copy or two safely ensconsced in a college library can be quite a blessing.

If you have tons of time on your hands, any book that isn’t too obscure can probably be successfully requested at either the SSL or your college.

Mark October 6, 2006 at 11:10 am

Its generally not a problem to get access to other college libraries, though you are unlikely to get borrowing rights. I’ve quite happily been admitted to Nuffield and All Souls to chase obscure books. Normally just requires a polite word to the librarian.

Rob October 6, 2006 at 12:16 pm

Yeah, I once emailed New’s librarian about getting access to a book which had only just been published and was still buried somewhere in the Bodleian’s bureaucracy, and they seemed actually really happy to help me, although I couldn’t borrow it. And I understand that actually, all graduates automatically get access to Nuffield’s library (or that’s what I seem to remember them saying at the library induction at the SSL earlier this week). Anyway, graduates are no worse off for choosing colleges than undergraduates: I’d never heard of the Norrington table when I picked Catz as an undergraduate.

Milan October 6, 2006 at 3:38 pm

Mark is right that Nuffield and the Codrington Library at All Souls can be accessed. As a member of the IR program, you can apply to be a reader at both. Neither will let you borrow, but they will both let you in at certain hours.

Lee October 6, 2006 at 4:15 pm

The Norrington Table is based on undergraduate exam results is pretty useless to prospective graduate students although it may help reflect the sort of environment you are likely to find. Competition at the top of the table is so fierce that colleges like Merton seem to actively discourage extra-curricular activites and terrorise their students into working, which produces a rather drab environment populated by geeky, rather shell-shocked undergrads who are all perfectly pleasant but somewhat dull. In general I’d say avoid undergrad colleges because unless you want to act like an undergrad, you can very easily be socialised into a “grumpy grad student” role by the presence of the youngsters.

St Antony’s is good as a large, sociable college and has good libraries, the area studies centres, etc – a good place for the IR MPhil. But it is desperately poor. Something most grad students should look into is the now-annual tables showing college endowments and incomes. Wadham is one of the poorest, incidentally. Christ Church and St John’s are the richest. Nuffield is also very wealthy and provides extremely well for its students, probably better than any other college – office, housing allowance, subsidised meals, research grants, etc. St John’s is also quite good for this and also provides city centre college accommodation for your full time at Oxford, should you want it.

On libraries, Nuffield and St Antony’s have a reciprocal arrangement to allow borrowing by each other’s members. Reference only access to Nuffield is, as has been said, possible by filling in a form.

Milan October 6, 2006 at 4:40 pm

Regarding college wealth:

This table shows Wadham as 19th among 36, in terms of college endowment, with a gross endowment income of 1,306,018 Pounds a year.

The top five, by wealth:

1 St. John’s
2 Christ Church
3 All Souls
4 Merton
5 Nuffield

Of course, such a ranking is rough since it disregards both the wealth of the college per student and the relative generosity of colleges, when it comes to granting scholarships and bursaries.

That said, Wadham is notorious within the MCR for being unusually stingy on both counts.

Ben October 6, 2006 at 4:52 pm

I’d say overseas grad are no worse off than home undergrads in terms of information on college choice (apart from the fact they may be less likely to know someone who’s been to Oxford) – and indeed college choice matters significantly less for grads.

To some extent, it’s very ahrd to guage what a college is like, because the student turnover is so rapid. Perhaps the next best thing is an open day or videos of the college (new Jesus website addition)

I suppose accommodation and grants are more sensible considerations than proximity to the city centre/department.

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