A Cherwell investigation has found that huge procedural discrepancies exist between colleges for students wishing to change subjects during the course of their degree.
The varying treatment received by students from college to college can lead to the difference between students being permitted to change course and remain at Oxford, or alternatively, dropping out of Oxford altogether, as a result of not being able to change subjects.
Results obtained by Cherwell through a Freedom of Information request reveal some interesting trends. Over the past five years, the vast majority of subject changes have occurred within the humanities, while far fewer course changes have taken place within undergraduate science courses. Students are far less likely to change from a science to an art, and only a handful of students across the University request to change from a humanity to a science based subject.
According to the University’s own statistics, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) is one of the most competitive courses to get on to, attracting the most applicants out of all other undergraduate subjects over the past five years, and having a consistently low success rate, relative to other subjects.
Cherwell’s investigation can reveal that PPE is also among the most popular course to which to switch upon arrival, with students often changing from similar, yet less competitive courses such as Maths and Philosophy or Physics and Philosophy.
Cherwell’s findings have led to concerns that some students may be applying for less competitive courses in order to secure a place at Oxford, then changing on to more competitive courses upon arrival.
OUSU VP for Access and Academic Affairs Alex Bulfin said, “It is impossible to say to what extent this is a widespread phenomenon; most colleges are very careful in their handling of requests to switch course and as such I think a lot of ‘tactical switching’ would be filtered out if it is being attempted.”
Bulfin continued, “It is another good reason for leaving the final decision on switching courses with the colleges rather than handling it centrally.”
There is no centralised University system for course change requests, meaning that each college adheres to its own procedural guidelines.
St Anne’s is one of many colleges to stress an “exceptional circumstances” rule for changing subjects.
The college rules state that “In exceptional circumstances, a student may be permitted to change subject; in this case permission must be obtained from Tutorial Fellows in both the releasing and accepting School, and funding for the new course confirmed.”
Isabella Anderson, from St Anne’s, successfully changed from Maths to PPE. She said, “Everyone at St Anne’s was really supportive throughout the whole process – and the focus was very much on what would be best for me.
“The process of trying to switch subject formally started after I sat my prelims so the only requirement was that there would be a space on the course after the A level results were released. I had to go through an application process as if I were applying from outside – submitting a personal statement and being interviewed.”
Michael Haggar, a current second year from Wadham, successfully changed to PPE from Physics and Philosophy. He told Cherwell, “Wadham seems to be quite lenient about everything. My senior tutor was really nice about it, she said I should wait till the end of first year to change. I already knew the Philosophy tutor at Wadham from my course, and over the summer just after first year, I contacted the Wadham Politics and Economics tutors directly, to ask them about the change.
“They like to see anyone passionate about their subject, and I was luckily in that the Politics tutor and I had a good rapport. The whole process was fine, I did not even have to repeat the first year, but picked up the PPE course from second year which I was really happy about. I didn’t have to go to any meetings at all. But I think it depends on the college, and also on the tutors involved.”
However, not all students have such an easy ride. One second year at St Hugh’s claimed that his application to change subject was so stressful that it caused him to have panic attacks.
Originally accepted at Oxford to study French and Arabic, he said, “I was one of the few students in my year group who arrived at Oxford with no prior knowledge of Arabic, so felt very highly pressured once I got here.
“Changing course took a really long time; the college wanted to make sure that I wasn’t trying to get onto an easier course. They said I should keep going with Arabic as that was what I had been accepted to the college to study.
“I was told I would need to keep going with Arabic until prelims and that even then, changing courses would still depend on my results. It felt like the institution was against me.”
He said the process caused him a lot of stress, and he claimed that this precipitated a series of panic attacks. He continued, “Eventually, I was told I would be given an interview for French and Philosophy during the normal interview period.
“Early in Hilary Term, I was told I would be accepted onto that course, and after that the college were really helpful. I took the rest of the year out, and returned to Oxford as a fresher the following October.”
Bulfin, OUSU VP, told Cherwell that procedural differences between colleges regarding subject change are a “significant challenge facing the University.”
A spokesperson from the University Press Office confirmed that there was no centralised University policy on changing subjects. He said, “Obviously changes of course are handled on a case-by-case basis by colleges, and different students will have different circumstances, as different colleges may have different procedures. However, each college deals with each case separately, so from a central perspective there’s not really anything we can say.”
Bulfin defended the college based approach, saying, “I’m not sure that a centralised procedure for this would be appropriate. Ultimately colleges and college tutors are the admitting body for undergraduates and it is only fair that they have a say in whether or not a student switches courses. So much of the undergraduate experience of teaching is college-based and I think it would be difficult for a department or faculty to make these decisions.
“They won’t know, for instance, how well resourced a certain subject is within a certain college, and this could cause further problems for the student and the college.
“I think a better question to ask is can separate college procedures be brought more closely in line with a common framework or model of best practice, or better still have one set of procedures adopted by all the colleges, so that all students go through similar processes but colleges are still able to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.”