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Why don’t we talk about Oxford’s land?

Property management isn’t the most scintillating topic for Oxford students to concern themselves with. But in many ways it is the basis of our student experience – the reason why we walk out onto that beautiful quad, stroll into a lavishly bedecked dining hall or look up at some finely restored stained glass on the edge of a chapel. Colleges talk a fair amount – and students hear a good deal – about endowments and fundraising, development and outreach. But our Colleges are old, ancient even, and so are their sources of revenue. Every time they need a new building – the Cohen Quad at Exeter, the Gradel Quad at New College – a fork out from a big philanthropist comes in handy. But the financial foundations of our Colleges, and therefore of our experiences in each one, are based on the land they hold, and often have held for centuries. 

Education is expensive. Reading books and answering problem sheets does not make you hard cash. The Oxford collegiate structure is able to survive financially largely because it is old, and because the assets that they hold and the property that they have owned for centuries, has grown in value astronomically. A visit to the New College’s Archives in the fourteenth-century Muniment Tower reveals the myriad boxes which hold the information of every estate owned by the College since 1379, spanning acres in the city of Oxford and across the country. The diligence with which the founders documented every interaction with their tenants highlights how much these new institutions depended on their assets for the money to support a community: money which we take easily for granted in the league table of endowments which sometimes make the headlines. But these figures do make a difference: student life is cheaper if you are at St John’s than if you are at, say, Regent’s Park. One was founded in Oxford in 1555, the other in 1927. Those dates matter. 

Some stats will help us broaden the picture. Oxford’s richest College is St John’s, with an endowment of over £700 million and assets reaching nearly £800. Much of this is based on the handy fact that the College has owned, almost since its foundation, a swathe of property in North Oxford which now sells for millions. It has also made some pretty smart money moves since the 1960s. All Souls follows with an endowment of over £500 million, with Merton and Christ Church in close succession. New College does fairly well out of its Wykhemist foundation, while other disproportionately endowed Colleges include Queen’s, Jesus and Nuffield. Much of the money directed towards property by colleges goes to firms such as Bidwells, which acts for forty-seven Oxbridge colleges in their endowments and building projects. 

These funds are essentially in line with the property owned by these colleges: All Souls owns more than three-hundred properties in Willesden in North London, from ordinary flats to pizza places on high streets; York Place Mansions on Baker Street is one of their most lucrative assets. More land does equal more cash, and, somewhere down the line, a cheaper life for its students. In Oxford itself, some of the most successful venues are owned by colleges; the Turf Tavern has been owned by Merton since 1946, and Wadham has been enjoying the revenue Kings Arms and the Holywell Music Rooms, where prices for drinks and music hire have increased drastically over the past few years. Magdalen has substantially increased its funds through selling its share of the Oxford Science Park to a Singaporean sovereign wealth fund. 

Why does this matter? All collegiate institutions have to get their money from somewhere, and investment funds and cash endowments have provided much more revenue for colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge over the last few decades. By the standards of Cambridge – where Trinity College sports its £2 billion endowment – the majority of Oxford colleges do not present astronomical numbers. 

Yet the colleges’ property does make a difference not only to our experience of university life in Oxford, but to the impact that Oxford has on the rest of the country. Although they often run through landlord firms, colleges such as All Souls have stake in numerous communities around the country; that in Willesden for example, is a community and an investment of a kind that would never have figured in the imagination of the college’s founders. Colleges have a stake in these changing communities – surely something we should speak more about in any discussion of Oxford’s wider impact. Property holdings are a form of outreach embedded in the life of the college. 

What’s more, students by and large are unaware of the stakes that their colleges have in their communities, and the sources of wealth that allow for Oxford colleges to remain independent. An increase in the costs of living – in costs for accommodation, food and maintenance – since 2020 should have put these issues front and centre. We don’t have to be overtly cynical about the nature of College wealth – investing in long-term property projects and in lucrative endowments is what provides the money for the world’s best university, though debate will always continue as to what the best use of that money looks like. A greater awareness of the sources of these funds – and the nationwide reach of our colleges – can work both ways. Seeing where the money we put into our colleges has gone should be a natural curiosity if we are to scrutinise how such funds are best spent, and to recognise that the money we pay goes towards more than providing the daily bread of university life. 

Students should scrutinise this more not only to make sure that the college is not missing the first priorities of provision for teaching and learning and student support: this means looking more closely at what the college owns and what it has done and could do with these assets. It means looking more closely at the traditions and the priorities of our colleges – for better and for worse. It’s not the most enticing topic, for sure. But property matters for us, and for many more outside of these city walls who don’t seem to play a part in the Oxford experience. 

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