The college system defines the Oxford experience – it must remain in place

Maxim Parr-Reid argues that a college was his first and only way to make sense of Oxford

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The threat of feeling insignificant in Oxford is eased by the college system. Identification with colleges is arguably stronger than with the university itself. Colleges are like cosy, more intimate versions of the university. Colleges were created centuries ago by monks searching for universal truth. Now you can buy college mugs and keyrings, scarves and anything that can be mass-produced and sold. The sense of identity, which colleges foster is profound.

Colleges allow you to live a simple life in Oxford, a concept the Danish call Hygge. Before coming to Oxford, I knew no-one here. Before arriving at Trinity, my first interactions with people here were on offer-holder groups – I look back on those times with curled toes. College made me feel like I belong.

Imposter syndrome felt so strong that even as I write this I’m shuddering. You’re at the best university in the country, but so are 20,000 other people. Colleges were always the chief selling point for me. Even the endless barrage of the blue-and-white university logo seems distant and impersonal when compared with the sense of community with which colleges instill you. Oxford can’t afford to lose this.

The colleges and the university work in concert. From matriculation to graduation, the role of the university is clear, but between these grand ceremonies, the colleges are key. Oxford is strengthened by the relationship between the colleges and the university. Life is arranged around college, whichever one of the 38 of them you go to. College is one of the less intimidating parts of Oxford as a student.

It’s true you have the Boat Race, but college rowing is what people are always talking about. What else could possess people to get up at the crack of dawn, if not bringing glory to your college, and the fear of an ignominious defeat at the hands of another?

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The great American universities – Harvard, Stanford, Yale et cetera, don’t have collegiate sysstems in the way we do. They may be higher ranked, wealthier even, but I wouldn’t trade the collegiate system for those things.

Oxford’s college system is a masterful parceling out of what can be a daunting experience. It was my first and only way to make sense of this university, especially given its role in such things as college families and trashing post-exams.

Only the familiarity of the college system has prompted my feeling of contentment in second year. Homely and supportive, the college system is the most wonderful thing about Oxford.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Harvard and Yale do, in fact, have collegiate systems closely modeled on Oxbridge – at Harvard they are called Houses, and they are integral to student life in a way that Oxford Colleges are not, because they provide housing for 98% of undergraduates. They are not identical, but clearly the author did zero research.

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