Trinity! What a college. Enviable green lawns, beautiful buildings (for the most part) and (again for the most part) great people. What’s not to like? Indeed, from as early on as open days, we are peddled the myth that it doesn’t matter what college we get into, because as soon as we get there, we will love it and think that it is the best college, like, ever. In the scary world of big, bad Oxford, there is a lot to be said for colleges. They provide students with a much smaller and more manageable setting, enabling us to meet a whole range of peers from all academic disciplines and walks of life.
They give all students a support structure, both academic and pastoral, unlike students at other universities who sometimes feel stranded, and they give students a part of the university with which they can positively identify and belong. In short, they give students a home.
Sounds great, right? Not so fast. Much of what colleges supposedly achieve can be achieved without colleges and they are, in reality, a drawback of Oxford. Firstly, halls play very similar functions to colleges in the ï¬rst years of many other universities. People make friends with people just as much because they live near them as because they are in the same college as them. This is borne out by the ridiculous extent to which staircase loyalty dominates colleges for at least the ï¬rst part of the ï¬rst year. Thus, the illusion that only colleges can help students make friends is patently untrue. Moreover, colleges could be seen as severely limiting your potential friendship group, as it is much harder to make friends outside college in Oxford than it is to make them outside halls in other universities.
Take Trinity for example. Here there are 86 freshers. Take away the scientists, the sporting meatheads and the recluses and I barely have 20 people who I could possibly be friends with. Whist this is a massive generalisation – I am sharing a room with a scientist next year and some athletes are surprisingly interesting– it does illustrate the limitations to making friends within college, especially when juxtaposed with the thousands of interesting people in the university as a whole.
What about the other claims for collegiate superiority? Take the idea that colleges provide a good support structure: a college is not required for this. One could just as easily have faculty appointed academic and personal tutors whilst student peer support could be provided on a halls level. Indeed, the college system can be actively damaging to your academic stress levels. For competition between colleges, especially over their ranking on the god- awful Norrington Table, can lead to colleges piling undue pressure on students to produce the academic goods. Merton, at least traditionally, illustrates this tendency perfectly.
There are plenty of other arguments for colleges being detrimental, such as the confused direction they set by adopting agendas distinct and diï¬€erent from that of the university as a whole, but space does not permit me to elucidate upon them. Colleges should carry some sort of health warning: not only do they hinder your social life but potentially your academic life as well.
It isn’t hard to imagine life at a university without the collegiate system. Flats aren’t that different from corridors or staircases and individual campuses are sort of like the colleges themselves. I’ve seen my friends at other universities nip downstairs to beg for help on their assignments, bang on their neighbours’ doors to announce pre-drinks, and get told off for staggering back to their rooms too noisily after a night out.
Imagining Oxford as a non-collegiate university, however, is impossible – and not simply because wherever you are in town you’re guaranteed to be at most a stone’s throw away from a college.
The collegiate system is the backbone of Oxbridge’s academic system too, providing the framework for the tutorial system. Tutorials are renowned for providing opportunities for students to discuss, argue and develop their own ideas under expert supervision and receive individual feedback on their work. Your tutors know you, your interests, and your writing style and can monitor your development minutely.
Tutorials and classes are of intrinsic academic value – and humanities students in particular would lose out if the format of their course changed to lectures and seminars. Writing down someone else’s thoughts in a lecture is certainly not as beneficial as receiving personally tailored support.
But while significant, the academic structure isn’t the sole or even the most important benefit of the collegiate system. Studying at Oxford can undoubtedly be an extremely stressful experience. But the collegiate system will support you every step of the way.
Being part of a college helps offset the natural ‘small fish, big pond’ fears that most freshers harbour when they first arrive at university. The work becomes less scary when you consider that you’ll be working with tutors who have hand selected you, deciding they want to work with
you for the next however many years. Instantly you become one of the five ‘chosen ones’, or one of twelve, rather than one of 3,198.
Entering a college, you become part of a ready-made community. You know that if you’re unsure of something your college mother is just in the next building, that if you have a problem with work, you can get help from the other people on your course that live across the corridor. The college system is a wonderful network for students, particularly if the centrally offered support isn’t right for you.
If you need to talk you have your college friends, parents, welfare reps, peer advisors, chaplain, nurse, subject tutors, personal tutor and senior tutor on site, ready to help you. These people are all there for you to reach out to, and to look out for you in times when you feel you can’t reach out, offering a range of support from social to academic. The collegiate system is one of the great strengths of Oxford – it may be old fashioned insofar as it is traditional but that by no means makes it outdated.