There’s a greater lesson lying behind the Norrington Table

We must continue to question the relationship between college wealth and academic success

The value of the Norrington Table is called into question almost every year it is published. However, what’s actually important is not what we see, but what we don’t. Less discussed is the cause of individual colleges’ success year upon year.

At the end of the day a degree from Oxford is a degree from Oxford, why then does it appear that some colleges consistently appear to achieve more Firsts and 2.1s?

Resource endowment is certainly a good place to start. Although hard graft of course matters, having a helping hand along the way clearly benefits some students. Indeed, there is a significant disparity in the wealth of individual colleges. The decentralisation of resources inherent in the Oxford system means that colleges have autonomy on how and where these resources are spent.

Wealthier colleges are likely to be able to assist students, attract better tutors, better able to offer permanent teaching contracts, and are more likely to have better resourced libraries.

And, indeed, looking at the wealth of colleges, guess who topped that table: St John’s College. Incidentally, the college that came bottom of the Norrington Table, Harris Manchester, also came bottom in terms of college assets.

This may simply be coincidence, I hear you shouting.

Based on Norrington Table rankings combined with the ranking of colleges based on their net assets, a Spearman’s Rank Correlation Test (my maths isn’t perfect, so I’ve had this double checked), reveals an R-value of 0.6111.

There is a undoubtedly a moderately positive correlation between a college’s wealth and its place on the Norrington Table. Indeed, Cherwell analysis last term of Norrington Table data between 2006-2017 shows that seventeen of the top twenty best academically performing colleges are also among the top twenty richest colleges.

Now, as the age-old adage goes, correlation does not imply causation. But here’s the thing. There is evidently an advantage for undergraduates that differs depending on what college you are at.

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Indeed, Christ Church offers students 30 free days of vacation accommodation each year for academic purposes. Incidentally, they are also second in terms of college wealth. Now picture this: you are a History, an English, or a CAAH student, and in the vac between second and third year you have thesis research and reading to do.

The local library at home is probably going to be of little use to you given the esoteric topping you are researching. But, if you happen to be fortunate enough to go to Christ Church, you have access over the vac to the entirety of the Bodleian resources. You are also free from your parents hounding you as to why you have been in your room all day (and more importantly free from the stresses that home life can bring for so many students, and which may adversely affect performance).

Similarly, at Magdalen, grants covering 75% of book costs (up to £100) mean that students are easily able to buy books of their own, without the need to borrow them from college libraries. Again, this is likely to have a material effect on students’ degree outcomes – Magdalen took second place on the Table.

College wealth clearly dictates how well colleges do on the Norrington Table, and if we are going to take any message from the table, it shouldn’t be that St John’s is better than the rest.

It should be that St John’s is better than the rest, to a large degree because St John’s is richer than the rest. The correlation between wealth and student outcome is reason for us to demand greater centralisation of resources, and greater consistency across colleges, in order to create a level playing field for all fortunate enough to study at Oxford.