Striking cross-college inequalities

Stark disparities in college wealth have led to concerns over the unequal provision for students across the University.

Published accounts show that annual income for the last recorded financial year 2007/08, varied between nearly £19 million at the top end of the range and just over £1.5 million at the lower end. The are also wide disparities in college endowment size, which range from between just under £6 million to over £300 million.

Christ Church topped the college income table for 2007/08, raking in £18.835 million. Below came St John’s (£15.726 million), followed by New (£11.697 million) and Magdalen (£10.875 million).

Harris Manchester College had the lowest income last year, at £1.648 million. Above came Mansfield (£3.475 million), Corpus Christi (£5.511 million) and St Hilda’s (£5.642 million).

A significant section of college income also comes the hosting of conferences and functions. St Catz, for example, made £2.064 million in this way last year, while St Anne’s made £1.888 million. Martin Jackson, Domestic Bursar at St Anne’s, explains that “this is a significant income stream and covers the current level of subsidy for student food and accommodation.”

Differences in endowment size are even more pronounced than income inequalities. Endowments are defined in college accounts as comprising “funds which are regarded as for the long term and which fundamentally underpin and sustain the operation of the College at its desired level of activity.” St John’s has the largest, at £300,321,000. Harris Manchester, on the other hand, has the smallest endowment, at only £5.964 million.

Questions have been raised about the difference membership of a rich college can make to students’ experiences while at Oxford. While lectures and exams are organised at a University level, college autonomy means that luckier students can enjoy cheaper food and rent, superior facilities and more intensive teaching opportunities.

Jonny Medland, OUSU VP for Access and Academic Affairs commented, “The wealth of colleges can have a great impact on the student experience here. Richer colleges can offer greater subsidies for rent, provide better facilities and offer higher levels of student support. Students should look at a range of factors before deciding which college to apply to, including what sort of atmosphere colleges have, and how they cater for the interests of individual students.

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“Inequality of wealth across colleges can be tackled in a variety of ways. This includes purely financial mechanisms – money is currently transferred to less wealthy colleges every year. But it’s just as important that minimum standards are introduced across the university. It’s crucial that students are treated equally regardless of which college they attend, and this means greater co-ordination across colleges as to what they offer their students.”

Ben Lyons, Co-Chair of Oxford University Labour Club also believes that the difference in wealth between colleges is an issue. “I’m not sure it’s entirely down to college wealth but also how they choose to spend their money,” he said. “Some colleges hoard money, others invest it in access, others in strong JCRs.

“It’s right to provide students with as much information as possible before they apply and the wealth of colleges should continue to be published. There can be a problem with income disparities between colleges; all colleges should be focusing their resources on access and allowing JCRs to provide effective services for students.”

Paddy Unwin, a second year Maths student at St John’s believes there are some advantages to being at a richer college. The fact that the college has a lot of money “is noticeable in that we can have accommodation provided for all three years, for example,” he said.

“This year I’m living in a house it’s still college owned which is good. We can also claim the cost of things like books and sports equipment back off the college, which is very useful.”

Will Nash, a second year Earth Sciences student at Worcester, rejects the idea that the college’s wealth has to make a difference. Worcester has the second smallest endowment, and is in the bottom half of the table of income in 2007/08, having taken in £7.104 million. “You would never think this college is poor,” said Nash. “I’m shocked to hear that its endowment is so small. We can live in college for the duration of our course, and it’s like the Burj Al Arab hotel here, but without the hot weather.

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“It says a lot about the college management that they can do so well for students despite apparently not having as much money as many other colleges.”

Alex Cavell, a second year Chemistry student, agreed that wealth was a less than significant factor. Cavell is at St Anne’s, a college with one of the smallest endowments, at £24.615 million. “I don’t feel that St Anne’s is a poorer college, but at the same time I wouldn’t imagine it’s one of the wealthiest. The college is well-maintained and not reluctant to build/renovate (the coffee shop and Ruth Deech Building both built in last few years), but if they had vast wealth I’m sure the Gatehouse building would have been knocked down years ago!”

Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Oxford University, Mike Nicholson, sought to allay any fears that students might have about being disadvantaged by their college’s wealth. “All undergraduate students, irrespective of their college, are entitled to receive an Oxford Opportunity Bursary if they meet the criteria,” he said. “This should address candidates’ concerns about the level of financial support they can access.

He continued, “About a quarter of applicants make open applications and a similar proportion of applicants receive offers from colleges that they did not have as a first preference. This demonstrates that the focus for undergraduate applicants should be the choice of courses available to them and material produced by undergraduate admissions provides this focus, giving applicants information that enables informed decisions on course choices.

“Extensive information on colleges is available in the prospectus and on-line, and candidates are encouraged to think about this when they have identified that the course at Oxford is appropriate for their own interests and aspirations.”