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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Special report: Students in disarray as St Benet’s set to close

Suzanne Antelme speaks with those affected by the Hall's closure.

St Benet’s Hall announced on the 16th of May via its official mailing list that the University Council has decided not to renew the Hall’s license as a Permanent Private Hall (PPH), raising the possibility of permanent closure for the Hall.

The email expressed hope that the Hall might continue to operate but said that “as and when this is no longer the case” the Hall would work to place current students at other PPHs or colleges to complete their studies. St Benet’s Hall was originally founded in 1897 as a place for the monks of Ampleforth Abbey and elsewhere to study at Oxford, having since welcomed students from all backgrounds.

Cherwell spoke to the Hall’s JCR President, Julian Danker, who said the Hall’s students had been “hit hard” – for the younger years by uncertainty and for finalists by “the news that their home for the past three or four years might cease to exist soon”. 

The JCR has been taking an active role, running additional welfare events and staying “constantly in touch” with Hall and University officials. Julian said he expected “certainty about students’ futures by the end of this academic year”. 

In the meantime, the Hall’s students had the opportunity to speak with the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, and steps are being taken to ensure students can claim mitigating circumstances for their exams. Julian felt confident that the “community spirit that has always existed at Benet’s is as strong as ever” but expressed sadness at the possibility that the Hall’s unique traditions, such as “the lack of a high table and the personal introduction of each guest at formals”, might be lost. He added that there “is also great concern about the future [of the Hall’s tutors and non-academic staff]”.

Cherwell also spoke to Mikyle Ossman, a first-year student who was quick to say he had enjoyed his time at the Hall and mentioned the active work of the Hall’s JCR. Ossman said his year group only found out about the financial issues over the Christmas break, triggering “panic on group chats”. 

He also expressed confusion with the Hall’s decision to accept students in 2021 if financial problems were already evident and criticised a lack of communication, saying “we were more or less in the dark over whether they would rectify the problems outlined in the Christmas email. […] Therefore when the [most recent] news came it hit us quite hard.” Ossman is anxious not to face a ‘phasing out scheme’ which would see his cohort remaining in the Hall as the final year group in a shrinking community. He indicated he thought most of St Benet’s first-years shared his preference to be moved to alternative colleges, if this becomes necessary, in time for Michaelmas 2022, giving them the best chance to integrate.

The University of Oxford’s governing body opted not to renew St Benet’s license at a meeting on the 9th of May in light of the Hall’s continuing financial insecurity, confirming that the Hall will not take on any new students in October 2022. The decision to suspend St Benet’s undergraduate intake was initially announced in mid-December 2021 in a joint statement issued by the University and St Benet’s that said the Hall’s “financial prospects are so uncertain that the University cannot be confident that the Hall can support a new undergraduate cohort”.

The Hall’s financial troubles seem to stem from its efforts to legally separate from Ampleforth Abbey Trust (AAT), the owner of the Hall’s premises. It is unclear how much progress was made on this initiative, as according to the Hall’s website its governing body, St Benet’s Trust, is still a wholly-owned subsidiary of AAT. The planned separation was apparently meant to help the Hall become a fully-fledged college, but it also meant the Hall needed to prove it was financially viable on its own. Acquiring ownership of its premises was a key part of this mission, and failure to convince the University that it would be able to do so was important in influencing the December decision to suspend admissions.

Late in December 2021, Cherwell reported on the Hall’s apparent success in securing financial support in the form of an “agreement in progress” with Westminster College Trust to acquire the Hall’s premises from AAT and lease them to the Hall for £1 per year (with a view to later acquisition by the Hall). Westminster College Trust also “pledged” to underwrite the Hall’s losses up to £300,000 per year for at least three years. This agreement, however, was apparently not finalised before the University decided to pause the Hall’s undergraduate admissions. Westminster College Trust has not responded to Cherwell’s request for comment.

The email from 16th May also informed students that AAT has now placed the Hall’s premises on the market. A spokesperson from the Trust told the Tablet that the University’s decision not to renew the Hall’s license placed the AAT at “an unacceptable level of risk”, and that while they had always hoped the Hall would be able to purchase the buildings, the Hall had not “produced the desired [funding] results within the necessary timescale”.

It seems the Trust has been aiming to sell the properties at least since December 2021, when the Hall’s Senior Tutor, Dr Gower, told the Oxford Student that AAT had taken an “independent” decision to sell the properties, unrelated to the planned legal separation and rather motivated by “not having sufficient resources”. 

The Hall’s August 2019 financial report stated that while it needed to increase its own fundraising income, it had “received a guarantee of support from … [AAT]”. The Trust’s financial report from August 2019, however, said their “overall level of free reserves”, excluding fixed assets, was a “£3.4 [million] deficit”. The report noted that “if it became necessary the Trust could potentially seek to realise some of the land and buildings not essential to the ongoing core activities and hence raise some funds through their sale”. 

A spokesperson for Ampleforth Abbey’s Trust told Cherwell: “In order for St Benet’s Trust to remain a going concern Ampleforth Abbey Trust has in the past provided sufficient funds to allow the Trust to continue its charitable objects. Financial support was provided with a view to St Benet’s reaching a position where it would be capable of generating its own reserves.

”In recent years St Benet’s Trust has been moving towards independence from the Abbey Trust initially as part of a plan to gain collegiate status within the University of Oxford. In order to do so the Hall would need to own its own buildings and be financially sustainable. The Abbey Trust took out a loan in 2018 to enable St Benet’s Hall to expand into a second building in Norham Gardens with clear timescales for that loan to be re-paid by St Benet’s Trust. It was always the preference of the Abbey Trust to sell both the property in Norham Gardens and that in St Giles to St Benet’s Trust if it could afford to buy them, but St Benet’s fundraising campaigns and funding options have not produced the desired results within the necessary timescales.”

The spokesperson insisted that “The University and the Hall are committed to ensuring that current students can complete their degrees at Oxford University with the same quality of education.”

The recent developments at St Benet’s Hall coincide with those at another institution linked to AAT. Ampleforth College, the boarding school founded by and built next to Ampleforth Abbey (which AAT represents), might also be facing a ban on taking in new students after it was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted following an independent investigation in 2018 that said it was “difficult to describe the appalling sexual abuse inflicted over decades [on the pupils]”. While Ampleforth College is now run by the St Laurence Education Trust, at least 5 out the 10 current trustees of AAT (as named on their website) have previously held roles in Ampleforth College. Between developments at Ampleforth College and St Benet’s Hall, the Sunday Times has speculated that the “network of leading Catholic institutions” established by the Ampleforth monks is “breaking up”. The AAT told Cherwell: “The situation of St Benet’s is unrelated to Ampleforth College.”

St Benet’s Hall was the last single-sex college in the University of Oxford, only admitting women in 2016. Until 2012, the master of the hall was always a Benedictine monk.  In 2013, the student barometer survey showed that St Benet’s had the highest overall student satisfaction out of all 44 constituent colleges and permanent private halls of the university. However, without renewing their license as a PPH, it is likely that the college will be unable to host students after the end of this academic year.

Image Credit: Janet McKnight/CC BY 2.0

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