Oxford’s Most Un-Oxonian College

Image shows the Berlin quad at Wolfson College.Berlin Quad at Wolfson College

Think of an Oxford college. Chances are, you’re thinking of a medieval institution, founded in the 14th or 15th century, built from honey-coloured Headington limestone, where ancient cloisters evoke the sense of following in the footsteps of countless greats from centuries ago.

Image shows a sketch of Isaiah Berlin.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Yet, while this is representative of many Oxford colleges, it doesn’t resemble all of them – one that is of particular note is Wolfson College, founded as recently as 1965. It began as Iffley College, a new community for graduate students, which had neither a president nor a building, until the involvement of Sir Isaiah Berlin.
Born in 1909 in Riga (at that time in Russia), Berlin came to the UK in 1921, his family settling in London, to escape the injustice and increasing anti-Semitism that followed the Bolshevik revolution. Though not a native English speaker, he mastered the language rapidly and found himself immensely suited to academia. Studying at Oxford, he gained a First in Classics at Corpus Christi, winning the John Locke prize for his performance in finals, and then followed this with a second degree – also achieving a First – in PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). He was offered a place as a tutor of philosophy at New College, and then elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls – while still aged only 23.
Berlin’s most famous work, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, given as a lecture in 1958, expresses the idea that there are two different types of liberty: positive liberty and negative liberty, which can in some iterations be entirely contradictory. This fits in with his overall concept of value pluralism, which argues that there may be several values that are all ethically correct, but that nonetheless come into conflict with one another; in other words, there is no single set of values or course of action that can be said to be fundamentally correct, as the set of values chosen may come into conflict with another equally valid and ethical set of values.
By the 1960s, Berlin had won widespread renown and respect throughout academia and the wider world, including receiving a knighthood in 1957. From this background, he enabled the transformation of the nascent Iffley College into something lasting. He got funding from the Wolfson Foundation (which aims to support excellence in the fields of science and medicine, health, education and the arts and humanities), established by the businessman and philanthropist Sir Isaac Wolfson, in whose honour the college was renamed. Berlin himself became the college’s first president.
Image is a button that reads "Browse all University Preparation articles."Berlin had something very particular in mind with the foundation of Wolfson College. He wished it to be ‘new, untrammelled and unpyramided’, with a strong egalitarian and democratic ethos. Consequently, Wolfson observes few traditions and does not respect hierarchies, with students and fellows interacting frequently, no ‘high table’ and minimal wearing of gowns. All members of the college share the same common room. The governing body of the college includes many graduate students.

Image shows Wolfson College's River Quad, leading to the punt harbour.
Wolfson College’s River Quad and Punt Harbour.

The modern outlook of Wolfson is also reflected in its architecture (which students choosing the ‘Art and Architecture’ module of our Broadening Horizons course can study in more depth). It does not aim to impose itself on the landscape, but rather be incorporated into it. The quads are open and integrated into the riverside. Water is particularly important to the design; it can be seen from most vantage points in the buildings. The college contains no chapels or spires. The lack of typical Oxford grandeur may be off-putting to some, but to others it is likely to be at the heart of the college’s appeal.
Wolfson College remains a graduate college, so the majority of students are studying for DPhils (PhDs to non-Oxonians). True to its foundation, its current president, Dame Hermione Lee, describes it as “Oxford’s most international and interdisciplinary graduate College, with students from 75 nationalities, studying for Doctorates and Master’s degrees in a wide range of subjects. Its Fellows are some of the world’s leading intellectual authorities in an extraordinary diversity of fields, from ancient history to anthropology, world literature, oriental studies and medical sciences.” Given that two-thirds of Oxford’s graduate students come from overseas, to be the most international graduate college suggests considerable diversity. And although Wolfson College is less than 50 years old, it still has its share of notable alumni, including the author Iain Pears, the Nobel prize-winning biologist Niko Tinbergen and the geneticist Kay Davies.
So if you’re entranced by the academic atmosphere of Oxford but the ancient traditions of older colleges don’t appeal, why not aim for graduate study at Isaiah Berlin’s vision of egalitarianism, Wolfson College?


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Image credits: banner; Berlin; Wolfson.