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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

St Benet’s Hall buildings to be vacated as students lament loss of “lovely community”

Anya Biletsky reports.

Anya Biletsky
Anya Biletsky
Classics fresher at Somerville College. Stage Section Editor.

St Benet’s Hall announced via an email to students on 2nd June that the Hall’s buildings are to be vacated by October 2022.

The email, from the St Benet’s Hall Academic Office, stated that, “Following a meeting of the Ampleforth Abbey Trust (AAT) on Monday, the Chair of AAT has written to confirm the Trust’s plan to place the two properties on the open market. The Hall will vacate them before 7th October 2022.”

Since 2016, the Hall has accommodated graduate and undergraduate students, tutors and deans in two buildings; the main building at 38 St. Giles, which the Hall has possessed under Ampleforth Abbey since 1922, and the building at 11 Norham Gardens, which was acquired in 2015. Both sites have facilities including a library, common room areas and tutors’ offices.

As stated in The Oxford Student, the loss of access to these facilities “does not confirm that there will be no St. Benet’s Hall next year” but the announcement “makes it unlikely that students can be enrolled in an institution without these provisions.”

The announcement to place the buildings on the open market comes after the University Council’s decision not to renew the Hall’s license as a Permanent Private Hall (PPH) on 16th May.

In an email sent to students two weeks ago, the University Deputy Academic Registrar informed that “the University has decided to start looking for alternative college places for students (to come into effect from October 2022).”  Students have not as yet been informed about the specific allocations of colleges.

For students who had intended to live on-site, the 2nd June email from the Academic Office reassured that “We guarantee that those students who had planned to be residents at St Giles next year will have accommodation.” This may entail residency at whichever college students are reallocated to.

Cherwell spoke to JCR President Julian Danker, who said that “it is important that the reallocation process takes all students’ needs and individual situations into account”, and so he would “prefer the University to allocate students as adequately as possible” to a college.

He acknowledged the uncertainty of this process for students, stating that “it is unfortunate that we have not yet learnt what colleges we will go to next year as we are anxious to integrate as soon as possible, but, given that the situation had been very fluid over the past few weeks, this is understandable.”

When asked about the students’ response to the announcement about the vacation of the Hall’s buildings, Danker said the news was “devastating” to hear. He went on to say that “St Benet’s is one of the most unique places in Oxford, and we are conscious that a precious institution that we are a part of is being lost.

“As a JCR, we also stand in solidarity with the staff at St Benet’s, who have always worked with incredible personal dedication so that students succeed, and who are now faced with losing their main source of income.”

Cherwell also spoke to current members of the St Benet’s Undergraduate body about their reaction to the news and the provisions the Hall has put in place for the next academic year.

A second-year student expressed that he is not worried about his living situation next year, having already signed a housing agreement to live out, like a large majority of his year group.

The student also voiced disappointment at the imminent loss of the “small community” of St Benet’s, and described the “sense of mourning” among the student body. A finalist similarly admitted that “the knowledge that we will never be able to return to the hall in future years is deeply depressing”.

A first year student quickly remarked on “stressful” feelings generated by the lack of specificity she considered the Hall was providing with regard to the plans in place for students for the next academic year. She criticised the fact that students have received at most “four emails over a six month period”, which she thought remained vague about the situation.

The student was sorry that this lack of communication has resulted in information being spread mainly through gossip, which has only reinforced feelings of “anger and frustration” among students.

She indicated that she felt that the Hall was failing to fully prioritise the students’ wellbeing due to this lack of clarity in communication. She nonetheless acknowledged the easy access to support services provided by the Hall for those particularly struggling in this “very chaotic” time.

Another second-year student said she considered the Hall has been as “transparent” with the students as it could be, communicating with the students as and when information has become available.

Multiple students expressed a positive response towards the JCR’s emphasis on student welfare in the past few months. One student noted the “relaxed” atmosphere within the Hall maintained by the “extremely hard work of the JCR, with welfare reps running calming events, and social secs trying to add some light-hearted humour” to the situation.

There was a common sentiment among the students Cherwell spoke to of the close-knit nature of the student body at St. Benet’s. The Hall usually has enrolled around 84 Undergraduates and 32 Graduates, making it one of the smallest of the Oxford Colleges or PPHs.

A second-year student described the student body of the Hall as “a bit like a family”, lamenting having to lose a “lovely community” she is “so comfortable” with for her final year. She finished by emphasising that she is “not sad to lose the buildings, but the community” which St. Benet’s afforded her and her peers. 

The Hall told Cherwell: “The Hall’s senior management and the Trustees are acutely aware of the distress of our students following the announcement last week about the Hall’s closure, and in particular of the high levels of anxiety and uncertainty consequent on the re-allocation process. Throughout this difficult period in the Hall’s life, we have sought to keep all our students, staff and alumni as well-informed as possible. We know how destructive rumour and gossip can be in a small community. From January to April, when much hard work was being done in sensitive negotiations with potential donors, it was important to respect requests for confidentiality. Since the announcement of closure on 2nd June, the University, in liaison with the Hall’s officers, has been working tirelessly to re-allocate our students, and maintain channels of communication, including with our students. We are very grateful for their efforts. Again, those negotiations with other colleges are sensitive and ongoing, but we hope that the University will be able to announce the results of that process as soon as possible. We at St Benet’s remain absolutely committed to the welfare of all our students and staff, both now and in their future years in the University.”

Image Credit: University of Oxford

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