It can happen to the freshest of us. The tourists catch us as we go down the street, invariably caught in one of the two principal modes of the Oxford student: pre-work crisis dread or post-crisis daze. Their requests for help come in all the varied accents of the world: the inexplicable and frankly unearned friendliness of the American or the self-effacing Easterner. Yet, however the syllables are attacked the question itself is unchanging and eternal.
My experience of this came early in the term. My own tourist was possessed of an unplaceable continental accent and enquired, ‘Excuse me?’ with a not quite Germanic precision, ‘Where is the University?’ ‘The university is everywhere’, I lamely responded, ‘on every street.’ This interpretation lends rather an unexpected glow of dignity to the Poundland outlets of Oxford or, rather more happily, the assorted kebab vans. ‘The university is more of an idea’, I tried again, but by then I had lost him.
Indeed the tourists are on to something, for the university is a curiously elusive and sometimes fragmented creature. Our first formal encounter with it comes at matriculation (a ceremony that falls after you’ve had two weeks of college undying allegiance forced on you) the Latinate ceremony of which the translation roughly goes, Senior Tutor: ‘Can these students join the university?’ Vice-Chancellor: ‘Alright, if you insist.’ It is our colleges which carefully selected us, interviewed us, and now teach us in tutorials and discipline us when we fall short. The scientists might rise for nine o’clock labs at the science centre, but a humanities student never need physically leave college during their degree. They could sleep in college accommodation, eat in hall and work in the library. Their social scene would be college bars and JCRs.
Of course the university tries to help us along our way. It lays on lectures, a curiously outmoded and heroically ineffective means of instruction. But as the weeks roll by and attendances dwindle this point of contact is lost. The other great flagship is the library system, which certainly compensates for various deficiencies in college stock. Yet surely the university is more than a million dusty tomes?
No one doubts that it is colleges which take the primary role in the life of the Oxford undergraduate. But explaining the integral yet separate status of the colleges to a tourist may well prove impossible. Indeed the entire matter has a distinctly theological air to it, with the University an immaterial union of 38-colleges-in-one. So next time you are asked, simplify as freely as a GCSE syllabus. Direct your eager tourist first to the Bodleian, and then with a quiet sigh, on to the Exam Schools.