Oxford colleges’ property investments are worth over £1.5 billion, Cherwell can reveal.

An investigation by The Guardian revealed that Oxford colleges’ property holdings include a Scottish castle captured by Robert the Bruce, an international cricket ground, and a betting shop in one of London’s poorest boroughs.

The estimated £1.521 billion valuation of colleges’ property investments is more than the total funding for all universities and higher education institutions for the next academic year.

The figure excludes the majority of college sites, as most are not valued, and most  historic assets accrued before 1999.

Colleges’ holdings encompass some 85,364 acres, an area bigger than the Mediterranean island of Malta (78,090 acres).

The college with the largest portfolio in terms of area is Merton, whose property holdings and land stretches over 14,074 acres.

The two other biggest landowners are Christ Church (10,664 acres) and All Souls College (9,272.67 acres). The holdings of those three colleges alone are valued at around £460 million.

Cherwell can reveal that Merton’s holdings include a Buckinghamshire golf course, several Lincolnshire farms, and two Oxford pubs (Turf Tavern and St. Aldate’s Tavern).

Christ Church owns over 1,000 acres of land in both Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, while All Souls’ portfolio includes the Kingston-upon-Thames branch of Jack Wills and a private members tennis club in Middlesex.

All Souls, which is Oxford’s second-wealthiest college, despite the fact it does not admit any undergraduates, also owns over 300 properties in Brent, a deprived borough in North-West London.

The College owns the freehold of a Ladbrokes branch, as well as the leasehold on Zam’s Chicken and Pizza, among other properties in the borough.

Brent has one of the highest poverty rates of any London borough, and several of those living and working in All Souls-owned buildings told The Guardian they hoped any money made from its holdings in the area would go towards access work.

An employee at Zam’s Chicken and Pizza said: “[It seems] unusual for a university to have so many buildings, but I suppose it’s good to have assets. They probably should use the money to make the student population more diverse.”

Lorain Buckle, a 65-year-old Brent resident, whose house is owned by the college, said: “My house is a leasehold so I pay the ground rent to the college every year – it’s about £8. They are not active as a landlord and operate through a company… it’s only really recently that I realised it was them that owned it.

“Any money the University has should definitely be going towards getting a wider pool of applicants.”

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The oldest property owned by any college is Buittle Castle in south-west Scotland, which was built in the 12th century and given to the Scottish nobleman John de Balliol, who, with his wife, Lady Dervorguilla, founded Balliol College, in 1263.

The castle was later captured by Robert the Bruce in the 14th century, before reverted to the crown, and is now owned by Balliol again.

Some of the more unlikely holdings include the Ageas Bowl cricket ground near Southampton, which is owned by Queen’s College, and Millwall Football Club’s training ground, of which St John’s College is the landlord.

St John’s, Oxford’s wealthiest college, is one of several colleges to have received agricultural subsidies amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The figure includes £117,000 paid to Waterside farm in Berkshire, which St John’s owns, in common agricultural policy subsidies paid in 2016.

The tenant farmer received the grants, which are supposed to conserve the environment by protecting wildlife and maintaining rural landscapes, despite the local council putting forward plans to extract 200,000 tons of gravel from the farm, which is situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Local residents reacted furiously to the council’s plans, with one writing a letter to St John’s which aimed to “highlight the damage that [the] College is intent on inflicting on the environment, the ecosystem, the neighbourhood, the town, and not least, the residents.”

The College declined to comment.

The Guardian’s investigation also revealed that Oxford and Cambridge colleges collectively own 126,000 acres of land, an area four times the size of Manchester, and more land than is owned by the Church of England.

An Oxford University spokesperson said: “The central university’s strong balance sheet allows us to fund new initiatives for our students, staff and outstanding teaching and research.”

Additional reporting: Xavier Greenwood

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