I can’t help but feel that comparing colleges is like comparing one Michelin-starred restaurant to another: an Oxford degree is an Oxford degree, and not something to be sneered at, regardless of whether it came from Harris Manchester, the poorest of the Oxford colleges, or Christ Church.
When I was looking around the various Oxford colleges on an open day, I was told by a current undergraduate: “It doesn’t matter where you get in; everyone ends up loving the college they go to.” Yet, the disparity in endowments has created comparisons between college wealth and academic success.
But colleges’ teaching have more similarities than differences. Teaching is coordinated by the faculties and there are esteemed tutors across the University. We all go to the same lectures and colleges often source tutors from other colleges, further blurring distinctions. While the stock of books across the college libraries does fluctuate, the key libraries are university-wide. I doubt Magdalen and New College have a special first degree serum only procured by greasing a vendor with cash from their deep pockets. Having spoken to people at these colleges, the main difference seems to be that of academic pressure.
In my college – Trinity – we are expected to get a 2.i in collections, while at Magdalen, undergraduates are typically expected to get a first. While the correlation between wealth and academic excellence is undeniable, I think it can be largely chalked up to just that: correlation, not direct causation.
Applicants are likely to be aware of their college’s relative assets and ranking on the Norrington Table, leading high-ability applicants to apply to the high-ranking colleges and thus perpetuating the status quo.
As a student of a relatively wealthy college, I have found that while my college makes concessions in some areas, offering free printing, we are still liable to being fleeced in other aspects of college life: it makes me slightly nauseous to think how much I have paid for subject dinners or Halfway Hall, where alcohol wasn’t even included.
What most frustrates me about the endowment information is not the disparity between the colleges, but the clear fact that most colleges could not only exist, but continue to thrive without the necessity of the £9,000 tuition fees from each of its students. While the sum is a drop in the water for colleges, it forces the majority of students to rack up alarming debt. Every college’s endowments increased in the past financial year to reach a dizzying £4.57 billion.
The real victim here doesn’t seem to be Harris Manchester, with its £27 million in assets – it is me and you, with a student loan sword of Damocles hanging over our heads when we leave Oxford and its billions behind.