The 6 Best Things About Life in an Oxford College
The environment of an Oxford college is amazing and unique. While several British universities, such as Durham and Lancaster, operate a kind of collegiate system, only at Oxford and Cambridge is it taken to the full. It’s often a source of entertainment to students and locals in those two cities when tourists ask for directions “to the university”; there’s no single building or location that makes up either university, as the colleges are spread across the city, and there are additional accommodation blocks, faculty buildings, sports fields and more besides. Stand in the centre of Oxford, and you could reasonably point in any direction to say “this way to the university”. And if you want to include land owned by colleges, then you could reasonably say that the O2 Arena (the former Millennium Dome) is Cambridge University; it’s owned by Trinity College.
At Oxford and Cambridge, a college is a kind of university within the university. Students live and study within their own colleges, and contrary to some misconceptions, all colleges teach all subjects. While some lectures and socialising happens at a university level, a student’s college is their home. And if you come and study with us at Oxford Royale Academy in one of our summer schools, you’ll similarly have the chance to live and learn in an Oxford college while enjoying all the benefits of being part of the larger Oxford Royale Academy community.
A traditional college is based on a monastic community in a model that dates back to Oxford’s foundation around a thousand years ago. That can be seen even in the layout of older colleges, structured around quads with a chapel and a large dining hall to bring students together. The layout looks much like that of a small monastery – unsurprising given part of the early role of universities was to train clergymen. The nature of a college has been adapted for the modern day (aside from anything else, all Oxford colleges now admit women) but where the traditions work, they’ve been retained. In this article, we take a look at some of the features that make living in an Oxford college so special.
1. Staying in beautiful and inspiring buildings
Most of Oxford’s most stunning buildings are part of colleges; the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre are notable exceptions. The variety among colleges is considerable in terms of architecture and history. For medieval college architecture, you can look to colleges like Merton, which is home to the oldest quadrangle and oldest library in the university, dating to the late 13th and 14th century. These medieval buildings tend towards the small and cosy, and it’s effortless to imagine students from previous centuries enjoying the sunshine or dashing across the quad to avoid the rain just like students do today.
Or to travel forward in architectural history, take a look at Queen’s College, which includes buildings designed by Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, who between them defined English Restoration-era architecture. Their Baroque and Neo-classical designs give the college a grand, elegant feel.
Or if your taste runs to modern architecture, Oxford’s colleges have that to offer as well. One notable example is St Catherine’s College, devised by Arne Jacobsen in a design that addressed not only the architecture but all aspects of the college environment, from the type of trees to the species of fish to the design of the cutlery, giving St Catherine’s a remarkably harmonious feel in comparison to the higgledy-piggledy-ness of the older colleges that have been constantly restored, altered and added to over the centuries.
Whatever your architectural preferences, one of the delights of life in an Oxford college is that you don’t just get to admire the beautiful surroundings from a distance, maybe take a selfie and then be asked to leave again. These stunning and historic buildings become your home.
2. Following in the footsteps of remarkable people from history…
Oxford is of course famous for its remarkable array of alumni. For instance, three British Prime Ministers were educated at Balliol (at the time of writing – if you are reading this article more than a month after it was published, it could well be four). Meanwhile, University College and St Hugh’s College boast one Prime Minister apiece.
While Oxford leads in politics and Cambridge leads in Nobel Prizes, this rule of thumb disguises the fact that Oxford has won quite a lot of Nobel Prizes too (and Cambridge has educated several Prime Ministers). The University of Oxford counts 51 Nobel Prize winners among its staff and alumni, including Dorothy Hodgkin (Somerville, the first British woman to win a Nobel Prize), TS Eliot (Merton) and Joseph Stiglitz (All Souls and St Catherine’s).
One of the most inspiring things about living and learning in an Oxford college is knowing whose footsteps you’re following in. It’s particularly motivational if you’re struggling with an essay or feeling like there’s too much to do and too little time to do it in, to look back on the notable people who have been in the same situation and who’ve got through it and gone on to achieve remarkable things. You can remember that they walked the same corridors, slept in the same rooms, worked in the same libraries and thought and discussed in the same classrooms – just like you’re doing today. When you’re living in an Oxford college, it can be great fun to read the diaries or memoirs of people you admire in whose footsteps you’re following, and see what they made of their time there, and how their experiences compare to your own.
3. … and sometimes seeing the literal marks they left behind
Those of us living and studying in beautiful and ancient buildings today wouldn’t dream of graffiting the walls or carving our names into the woodwork – and we know just how much trouble we’d be in if we did. Today, the only modern “graffiti” you’ll see on university buildings is the chalked rowing crests that commemorate the college’s wins on the river. But medieval people had rather less reverence for the old and beautiful than we do today, and for much of the university’s existence, all its staff and students would have gone around with their own eating-knife hanging from their belts, and had no hesitation in carving their names into masonry or woodwork to show that they were there. Keep an eye out in Oxford’s older buildings, especially churches, and see if you can spot any.
A particularly notable bit of graffiti can be seen in Christ Church, where the door at the foot of the hall stairs – formerly the entrance to the college treasury – bears the slogan “NO PEEL”, marked out in nails hammered into the door. This was a protest against Christ Church graduate and University MP Robert Peel, who would go on to become one of the country’s most celebrated Prime Ministers, in opposition to his support for Catholic emancipation. Peel argued that religion should not be a bar to participation in university life; in the context of the time, this referred primarily to the exclusion of Catholics as by far the largest religious minority in the country. The university and many of its students, meanwhile, were dead set against any change to the law. Eventually the law was changed, but Peel lost his university seat. And though Victorian anti-Catholic sentiment seems bizarre to us now, Robert Peel still doesn’t have a portrait up in the college. Living in an Oxford college often provides these remarkable monuments to an otherwise mostly forgotten history.
4. Meeting inspiring people from all over the world
Academics and students flock to Oxford from all over the world, drawn by the reputation of the university and the chance to live and learn in this incredible environment. The collegiate system helps to avoid enclaves of a particular subject and – often by extension – a particular nationality, so that instead everyone mixes together. The same is true when you stay in an Oxford college on our Oxford summer school. The connections we make with people different from ourselves, whether at home or when we travel the world, can be fleeting, but the environment of a college, where everyone lives, learns, eats and socialises together encourages the formation of enduring bonds and cultural exchange – and that’s whether you’re there for a fortnight of a summer school, three years for an undergraduate degree, or decades as a fellow.
In practice, this means that the dining hall of an Oxford college can be like a mini United Nations, with people speaking several different languages and offering diverse perspectives on different topics, depending on the country or the culture that they grew up in. And while the traditions of Oxford can be off-putting to some, but many students feel that they help by giving people from these diverse backgrounds a shared set of norms, even if that is for something as archaic as prayers said in Latin, or as strange as wearing sub fusc for exams.
5. Being part of a lively intellectual community
The diversity of an Oxford college is not just on the basis of background and country of origin; it’s intellectual, too. Oxford colleges are designed to facilitate intellectual exchange, and it’s one of the things that makes the university excel internationally.
It’s increasingly accepted that working in silos, such as academics who only speak to others in the same narrow field, has a stultifying effect on creativity. One person who was passionate about breaking people out of their silos was Steve Jobs. As CEO of Pixar, he designed their headquarters with the specific aim of encouraging chance, serendipitous encounters, and ensuring that people from all the different parts of the company – from animators to writers to HR and facilities – interacted with each other regularly. The building he devised was structured around a vast central atrium which houses everything that employees from every department might need, including the gym, cafe, bathrooms and more, so that every employee would have to go there and meet their colleagues as part of their normal day. The end result was a lively, creative, innovative workplace.
When Steve Jobs’ design is written about, it’s normally presented as an amazing innovation in itself. But this is also the structure that Oxford colleges follow. No matter your subject, everyone gets together in the dining hall, and would traditionally have done so for religious worship in the chapel as well. And in exactly the same way as at Pixar, this sparks brilliant interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations that might never have taken place in a different setting.
6. Exploring new hobbies and obscure interests with people like you
Life in an Oxford college isn’t just about intellectual pursuits. Whether you’re there for a summer school, as a student or as an academic, colleges can also be the centre of a lively social life. There are balls and bops – and yes, at Oxford Royale Academy there’s at least one lavish party to go to during every session with us. There are frequent student union events. And there are near-constant events put on by a dazzling array of different societies. The collegiate system means that there’s competition between colleges; for instance, every college has its own rowing teams, and many colleges compete independently in the TV quiz show University Challenge.
What’s more, different colleges have different atmospheres and attitudes. Some of this is based on stereotype, but nonetheless, you can choose between larger colleges and smaller colleges, more modern colleges and more traditional colleges, colleges that compete aggressively in sports and colleges that are always at the top of the academic tables. Oxford is like dozens of different, smaller universities in one, so that you can choose a college that suits your own interests and personality. Some people choose a college at random, while others apply to one college and are accepted into another, while others still spend hours making the decision about which college is right for them. But almost everyone who lives in an Oxford college comes to think of it as home.
All photos used in this article were taken at Oxford Royale Academy summer schools.