You, reading this, are probably an Oxford undergraduate. Or at least you’re an Oxford undergrad some of the time. It might seem obvious, but Oxford students are only really Oxford students for less than half the year. We spend eight weeks at college, before the world of bops and essay crises, union hacks and Najar’s, dissipates again and we have to return home. Like many of us, I’ve always found the structure of Oxford terms to be profoundly disorientating; once I’ve adapted to the pressure-cooker environment of this place, the term is suddenly finished and I’ve got to adapt to the dull monotony of the vacation again.
Why on earth does Oxford University persist with this ridiculous term system? There’s a reason that Oxford is just about the only university in the world, apart from Cambridge, that uses it. If you want your students to learn as much as possible, obviously it makes sense to keep them in university for as long as possible. That’s why almost all UK universities have term lengths around 32 weeks; across the pond, Yale and Harvard – the two academic institutions most comparable to Oxbridge – keep their students for around 40 weeks of the year. Modify term structure a bit, even just by slotting in a reading week or two, and you’d save students enormous amounts of stress, while helping prevent some of the disorientation that lurching between term and vacation causes. Worst of all is how Oxford’s unusually short terms primarily hurt underprivileged students – if the vacation gives you an opportunity to saunter off to your Swiss ski chalet, maybe you don’t see the problem, but those who suddenly go from ancient banquet halls to council homes, from a world of privilege to a world of poverty, probably do.
One answer given for Oxford’s short terms is the need to give students the opportunity to gather work experience and pursue internships. That argument is hardly convincing. For every hour I spent adding to my CV during the last vacation, I spent many more lying in bed – and you were probably the same.
Having a structure of three eight-week terms used to be the norm in Britain – but over the course of the last century, university after university has abandoned them. Why hasn’t Oxford? There are two answers to that question, two answers that can serve as the solution to almost any question you might have about this place – tradition, and money.
Tradition is the more obvious answer to outline. Oxford’s three terms are based around the religious calendar, the Feast of St Michael, The Feast of St Hilary and Trinity Sunday. But I had never heard of the Feast of St Hilary before beginning this article; Hilary term certainly isn’t being modified out of fears of offending a Catholic bishop that died over a millennia ago.
Instead, one of the main reasons Oxford’s terms haven’t changed, no matter how little sense they might make for the 21st century, is because of Oxford’s bizarre system of governance. The authorities of Oxford University are set up like something from The Trial, like how Brexiteers imagine the EU to run, authority divided and subdivided between dozens of different institutions, whose authority is then divided and subdivided even more. In practice, the Vice Chancellor does most of the heavy-lifting for the central university, but the Congregation, Council, Pro-Vice Chancellors, Divisions, Departments and countless committees also play a crucial role – and that’s not even mentioning all the colleges, who hold most of the real power, all with their own labyrinthian bureaucracies too. In practice, this means that trying to bring about change, especially radical change, in Oxford University is a difficult, usually fruitless, task. When do you think, for instance, Oxford’s last all-male educational institution began admitting women? The answer is 2016, when St Benet’s Hall finally wrapped its head around gender equality, at least several centuries after the rest of us. The dictates of reason or logic, whether around term structure or anything else, mean nothing when they fall on the deaf ears of an endless bureaucracy.
What about money, then? Oxford University’s financial structure is about as impossibly complicated as its governance. The long and short of it, however, is that students, and undergrads especially, aren’t really that profitable for the university – its coffers are instead mainly filled up with a steady stream of income coming from investments and land. Indeed, it’s much harder making money when undergrads are here than when they’re away. According to the university, a home student at Christ Church can expect to pay around £15,000 a year in course fees, accommodation and utilities combined – around £750 a week. Spending a week at Christ Church as part of ‘The Oxford Experience’ – a residential program run during the vacation – costs more than twice that, as much as £1895 for a single week. Weddings and other receptions rake in even more money than residential –a wedding reception at the Bodleian Libraries goes for as much as £12,000, more than the cost of an entire year of undergraduate studies made in just one night. The vacations are also the major period for DPhil students and fellows to complete their research. Giving students more term time would mean higher workloads, and therefore higher wages, for academics – and considering the payment for a tutorial is often as low as £25, we know how much Oxford dislikes giving money to its workers.
Oxford University’s term structure is rubbish – but next time you find yourself overwhelmed by the pressure of termtime, or twiddling your thumbs during the vac, bear in mind that, unless you’ve got several billion pounds along with the powers of persuasion to bring several whole bureaucracies along with you, things probably aren’t going to change.