When meeting someone new in Oxford, students are most likely to ask “what college do you go to?” and “what course do you do?” In response to this, I inform people that I attend Regent’s Park College. Normally, I don’t even give them time to look at me in a perplexed manner as they try to figure out if I actually go to the same University as them or if I’m just making up a random name. I am quick to assure them in a bumbling fashion that ‘I know they have never heard of it, it’s very small, I mean technically it’s not a college it’s a private hall.’ To this, the most frequent question to follow is what life is like in a private hall and what similarities and differences can be found between private halls and colleges in Oxford.
A permanent private hall (PPH) is an educational institution associated with The University of Oxford, but which is also affiliated with a Christian denomination. These have existed in Oxford since 1221. In 1918 a statute was put in place by the University allowing these non-profit private halls to become permanent features of the University.
There are six PPHs in total in Oxford, of which five admit undergraduate students. The largest PPH is the one that I attend, Regent’s Park College, which has around two-hundred students. A common misconception surrounding PPHs is that they exclusively admit postgraduate students. This is simply not true; of Regent’s students, fifty-seven percent of the hall’s population are undergraduates.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the nature of PPHs for those who don’t know of or interact with people who are part of them. As a result of this, PPHs have grown to have something of a mythical status in several Oxford circles. In particular, many people I come across seem to think that because we are not an official college, we have fewer regulations to follow, as a result of which we become something of a cult. This goes hand in hand with another misconception I often receive, that PPHs are made up exclusively of people of faith.
Whilst colleges are managed and run autonomously, a PPH is governed mostly by a specific Christian denomination and is managed under the license of a charitable organisation or religious order. Regent’s Park College is associated with the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Wycliffe Hall with the Church of England and St Benet’s Hall with Roman Catholicism (of the Benedictine order). As a consequence of the religious nature of PPHs, they attract theologians as tutors, who will, in turn, attract students interested in theology, resulting in a higher intake of student’s reading Theological Studies or Combined Honours with Theology. Whilst it is common that religious people choose to study theology, being religious is certainly not a prerequisite of reading the subject. A recent online poll of Regent’s Park College asked whether the students of the college would describe themselves as ‘religious’. To this, 64% said that they would not, out of a sample of forty-four people. Although the sample size may not be representative of the college more widely, the results indicate that the branding of Regent’s as a ‘religious’ institution does not in any way mean that the individual members of the institution are religious themselves.
On average, the University of Oxford takes sixty-four undergraduate students a year to read Theology and Religion, Philosophy and Theology and Religion and Oriental Studies. In my year at Regent’s, nine people attend these courses. Other PPHs like Wycliffe Hall, however, offer exclusively theology qualifications. Relative to their size and in comparison with other colleges, there is a sizable proportion of students studying Theology or an honours degree associated with Theological Studies in PPHs. That being said, Benet’s and Regent’s do not only offer Theological Studies, they also welcome many humanities students to make up the rest of the student body.
Another prominent misconception associated with PPHs is their cult culture. The first thing that I heard about St Benet’s Hall was that on the first day of Michaelmas term, all of the freshers had bags wrapped around their heads and were taken and thrown in the Cherwell. I believed this up until third week when I met a Benet’s fresher who informed me, to my sincere relief, that no such activity happened at all. My own college, Regent’s Park, is also home to a number of cultish rumours, particularly surrounding “Regent’s Rabbits”, the all-female drinking society. During my first few weeks at Oxford, people from other colleges would often ask me whether I was part of this notorious and mysterious group. At first, I did not know what it was, but the rumours that I had heard about it were, in all honesty, pretty dodgy. But as I became more and more involved in life at Regent’s, I discovered that the notoriety of the group is far from deserved, the Rabbits are simply a collection of lovely girls who meet every week for a crew date wearing rabbit ears and who host the odd drinking event throughout the year. Whilst the rumours about PPH ‘cults’ are amusing, they are also flagrantly false.
A College Like Any Other
A lot of individuals hear ‘hall’ and immediately assume that PPHs are halls of residence. This usually results in people pitying us for not being able to experience the collegiate system in all its finery. This pity is misguided. PPHs are the same as colleges in most regards. We have a Junior Common Room with a President and committee which has weekly meetings to discuss issues and proposals, particularly relating to the distribution of finances and budgeting. Our dining hall serves meals three times a day, although a lot of people do self-cater, with our kitchens being comparatively better supplied than many other colleges. The dining hall is used on Friday evenings to serve our Formal Dinners. Three times a term the social secretary will organise a bop that manages to get everyone out, wearing ridiculous outfits and drinking from our dangerously cheap college bar (even people who are usually only seen in lower main kitchens at four in the morning). Traditionally, our bops consist of dancing to Blur’s ‘Park Life’ on the sticky floor of our JCR with the tattered brown leather sofas pushed to one side, before inevitably pouring out to Plush. Our bar itself is rated as one of the best college bars in Oxford, famous for its innovative cocktail combinations and cheap prices. Like any other college, we also have our own unique customs and traditions. A particular favourite of mine is ‘Pope’s’. This is when once a term an individual wearing an oversized Pope hat leads an invasion of Arzoo’s. The difference between life in a college and life in a PPH is often not as pronounced as people think.
The College Complex
However, for students and tutors who have what we refer to as a ‘college complex’, the prestige associated with collegiate status is difficult to cast aside. An inspiration to most PPH attendees is the success stories of college conversions; Former PPHs such as Mansfield College and St Peter’s College managed to gain collegiate status in 1995 and 1961 respectively. However, the most compelling reason that people want Regent’s to be made into a college is because of its financial implications. All colleges are financially autonomous corporations that run themselves, with their students and staff belonging to the greater body of the University which acts as the central government independent of internal affairs. The College Contribution Scheme (CCS) requires colleges that have a taxable asset amounting to £45m or more to fund the poorer colleges in the form of grants. Between 2016-17, thirty-eight percent of the CCS funding came from Christ Church, All Soul’s and St John’s. PPHs, without the status of a college, are not permitted access to these grants. In February 2019 an article was produced by Cherwell that documented the JCR motion passed by Regent’s Park’s JCR President William Robinson, which proposed the inclusion of PPHs in the CCS scheme. His argument rested on the fact that he did not “know how [the council] could possibly justify excluding literally the poorest institutions and the poorest student bodies in Oxford” from the scheme just because they were labelled as PPHs and not as colleges. I interviewed our now former President and he informed me that despite the passing of the motion, Regent’s have still not been given access to the scheme. His disappointment was clear, arguing that “the hypocrisy of a scheme that sets out to assist less financially fortunate colleges is plain to see in Regent’s exclusion, given that we have an endowment less than half the size of even the poorest college, but cannot access the scheme due to the hall’s PPH status.”
The value of PPHs
Many individuals, particularly in the PPH community, voice how unfair it is that their university experience differs significantly from that of wealthy colleges. Whilst PPHs have a lot in common with colleges at Oxford, areas of student life such as sport, travel grants and college counselling are all much more inaccessible for students who are studying at PPHs. For instance, Regent’s JCR spent the majority of last year trying to raise enough money to buy a new projector from several different sources. The projector was seen as something the JCR needed to function effectively and run meetings. A richer college may not have thought twice about funding such a vital piece of equipment, but for Regent’s, the process took much longer. The Regent’s Park endowment is currently at £5.4 million. To be able to apply to be a college, Regent’s Park would have to have a similar endowment of the poorest college in Oxford, Harris Manchester, who have assets worth £14.1 million. For a PPH like St. Benet’s Hall, the number is even further away, as they have assets totalling just £146,000. The road to becoming a college looks as if it will be a long one.
Are PPHs something that should be left in the past or do they still have a place in our University? Some feel as though the purpose of PPHs is no longer relevant in a modern context, that they are colleges in everything but in their the name and, therefore, deserve the same status and the same benefits that colleges have access to. Whilst Regent’s lack of wealth and lack of diverse subjects certainly play a part in why it has not yet moved towards collegiate status, the key reason is surely the college’s reluctance to renounce its affiliation with the Baptist Church. The PPH is involved in ordaining members of the Church to Priesthood and receive funding and guidance from the church body, activities which would have to cease if they were to become a college. Some feel that it is a fundamental part of the essence of Regent’s. This is why many, particularly those in the Senior Common Room, are extremely hesitant to push for collegiate status. Regent’s current working principle, Reverend Doctor Richard Ellis, argued in a Cherwell article released way back in 2010 that whilst “a college exists more in the mainstream of university life than a PPH, and has access to more resources”, “a PPH may want to preserve elements of its distinct ethos and this might be difficult as a college”. The views of the younger undergraduate student body who felt alienated from parts of college life were simply not being included in the discussion.
The future of Regent’s, and other PPHs alike, should involve more autonomy and a strengthening of ties with the University. This would, inevitably, require Regent’s to move away from its religious associations. Little progress has been made in this regard and talks will undoubtedly continue for a very long time. But for the time being, it seems that I will have to keep on answering the inevitable onslaught of questions whenever I confess to studying at a Permanent Private Hall.