The Collegiate System at Oxford University

“Does it matter what college you go to?” I asked a friend who attended the university.

“Well, not too much, although its a good way to ‘in’ yourself with people when you get to work since people from, Oxbridge ask each other which college they came from.”

“But are there better colleges and worse colleges.”

“Strictly speaking no, although there are broad reputations of some courses and colleges, and theres the Norrington Table.” (The Cambridge equivalent is the Tompkins Table)

“What’s that?”

“A table that ranks every college according to what fraction of students earned a certain degree classification.”

That conversation was my first introduction to the Collegiate system in the Oxbridge Universities.

Oxford is an old university, taking the form today after English students were banned by Norman King Henry II from attending the University of Paris due to a religious-political disagreement with his former friend Thomas Becket.

Although called the University of Oxford (or Cambridge), Oxford actually operates as a collegiate University meaning that it is made up of autonomous colleges that control their own membership and activities. Teaching is usually divvied out as tutorials at the colleges and halls together with extra classes organised by the departments.

By and large however, university life is centered around the college of which there are 38 at Oxford.

There are grand old institutions such as Balliol College, noted for producing national leaders such as British Prime Ministers Harold MacMillan and Edward Heath, politicians including Boris Johnson and Yvette Cooper, former German President Richard von Weizsacker, Canadian Governor General Charles Massey, Malaysian King Tuanku Jaafar and Norwegian King’s Harald V and Olav V among others, it is still not the most successful one – that goes to Christ College in Oxford which has produced 13 British Prime Ministers. Then there are new colleges such as Green Templeton College, established in 2008 that focuses on graduate students. In fact Oxbridge produced more than 70% of the cabinet of the last British coalition government, a full three-quarters of the Prime Ministers of the UK have come from a college in Oxbridge. And many bright, ambitious young political animals are presently cutting their teeth in this university.

It’s quite something to realise these are young teenagers, fighting over a seemingly inconsequential title within their own universities, only that it isn’t too inconcequential – former British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath were all Presidents of the political assocation in their Oxford days. Don’t forget, it was on the playground of Oxford that the Cameron-Johnson clash first emerged, and has been pinpointed as one of the personal reasons behind the completely opposite positions taken by both men during the Brexit debate.

The Collegiate system has been used around the world by many universities. While officially called universities, undergraduate degrees in the Ivy Leagues of the United States are offered by colleges (Harvard College, Yale College etc).

Like the university, the Collegiate system has its roots in medieval Christianity. The first halls established from the 12th to 15th century were what was called Monastic Halls, designed for the education of priests. Almost all these halls were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation with the Dominican Private Hall, Blackfriars the only institution to teach in the monastic tradition.

As the Catholic religious were removed from the university during the Reformation, the monastic halls were replaced by medieval halls. Instead of priests, the students were now young men. But young men, aren’t gentlemen and they were a nuisance to the townsfolk because they lived everywhere and anywhere, they were you could say, the trashy folk of their day. This led the university to decree that all students had to stay in approved halls. Little teaching was peformed in these halls and they were rapidly demolished in time. Only one remains till this day, St Edmunds Hall, the oldest college in the university. The Aula system is not completely out of style though, you could think of the Nation system in Lund and Uppsala universities as a natural extension of those medieval halls.

The halls died a natural death in Oxford however because they lost out to the competition – colleges. Colleges combined the best of the medieval halls (housing) and the monastic halls (teaching and learning), these halls were originally open for graduate students only, and only later on accepted undergraduates for free. The first few colleges in Oxford were University, Balliol, Merton, Exeter and Oriel. As with the times all these colleges were originally male only, it was much later that women were accepted to Oxford and studied in all female colleges, such as Sommerfield. All colleges now are co-educational and rightly so.

By far the College that most fascinated me, was Magdelen College because its alumni include the greatest of literati, CS Lewis and Oscar Wilde, great scientists such as John Eccles, Charles Sherrington, Colin Blackmore and Erwin Schrodinger (of the cat fame). It must be doing something right to have such a list of alumni in such a breadth of areas.

Magdelen College, Oxford in the distance

The collegiate model has become the de facto model by which universities all round the world use to teach undergraduates. By that measure, the Collegiate system sure works. The system has had to adopt to the changes brought on by the Humboldtian system which stressed research as a vital indicator of learning and import, and continues to thrive from that challenge. The Collegiate system faces a new challenger, the online education system, will it continue to thrive or will online education eventually render collegiate universities obsolete?



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