President Post: The Oxford Collegiate System

1 February 2016

Our previous Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, used to comment on what might have been the world’s leading universities 800 years ago, 400 years ago, and today, and the unsurprising fact that some universities which were once in that top grouping no longer are  – with the striking exception of Oxford, which had somehow managed to sustain that position, of being one of the world’s leading universities.  How was this done?  What is Oxford’s secret?  What is our ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ – our USP?

There are of course a number of factors, but the key, central one is the colleges, and the collegiate system.  That is Oxford’s key strength and ‘Unique Selling Proposition’.  Of course, just having colleges in itself means nothing – it is a question of what the colleges do, and how they work together to create, sustain and develop the collegiate university.

A key aspect of Oxford’s colleges is their multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary nature.  Some colleges have particular strengths, traditions and specialities, such as St Antony’s and area studies.  And there is a general consensus that students shouldn’t be assigned to a college that doesn’t have other students, or any fellows, in that subject area; rather, students should be ‘clustered’, so for those courses with a relatively small number of students, they will go to just a few selected colleges.  But all Oxford colleges nevertheless take students from different disciplinary areas, and most take students from across the whole range of the University’s subject areas.

For students, this creates an amazing opportunity to meet other students working in different disciplinary areas.  This can lead to fascinating discussions, dialogue and debate.  Sometimes it can lead to a student’s research plans being developed in ways they hadn’t initially anticipated, as a result of learning from other perspectives.  This can be as true of Master’s dissertations as it is of DPhil theses.

The same is true for fellows.  The opportunity to talk with fellows from other disciplines, whether over lunch or at a seminar, can generate collaborations and joint research initiatives which otherwise would most likely never have occurred.  The same can be true of new teaching programmes, where the collegiate fellowship can inspire and help deliver explicitly interdisciplinary degree programmes.

Like all universities, Oxford faces challenges.  One of these is the desire for departments and faculties to create new degree programmes, recruiting additional students.  But most colleges already have the right number of students to deliver the sort of community that helps to create and deliver the ‘Oxford experience’.  How to solve this challenge is not simple – but in my view neither is it particularly complicated.  It would involve pursuing four policy strands.

First, ensuring the growth in student numbers doesn’t exceed what is justified on grounds of quality, and the sort of Oxford experience that the University, colleges and City have the capacity to deliver.  Without this discipline, the number of students could double, which would pose a huge threat to our high quality standards of academic and other provision.

Second, to the extent that new programmes are established, it involves shrinking and even closing other programmes that may not be as necessary today as they might have been previously.  This will require closer working between colleges and departments than is currently the case.  But the will is there – it just needs the mechanisms.

Third, to the extent that student numbers do still rise, despite the above two strands of policy actually being implemented (which is not yet the case), it means the University working with those colleges that might be able and willing to accept more students provided their accommodation and other facilities could be developed in step.

And finally, if and only if the above three policy strands fail to fully solve the challenge, then one or more new colleges could be created.  But this last policy should not be used as a means of avoiding any of the above three; it should only be contemplated if the above three policy areas have been pursued effectively, so that we can all be convinced that there really is a genuine – and unavoidable – need for one or more additional colleges.

Underlying this whole policy area must, though, be an appreciation that the over-riding goal needs to be to maintain Oxford’s historic strength and ‘USP’, that is the collegiate system, whereby all degree students are members of a college.  Lose that, and we would risk losing everything.  Perhaps not immediately, but sooner or later.

Jonathan Michie