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Why money matters: college financial and educational disparities revealed

Financial disparities between Oxford colleges continue to grow, with the two richest undergraduate colleges – Christ Church and St John’s – increasing their net worth by more than £100 million over the last year.

This brings St John’s total assets to £592,346,000 – over twenty times that of the poorest undergraduate college, Mansfield.

Cherwell analysis also suggests there is a significant link between the wealth of an applicant’s choice of college and their likelihood of academic success, raising further questions on the suitability of the collegiate system in delivering fair and equal teaching resources to students.

All colleges saw their net assets grow in the last financial year, some by tens of millions. The total value of college endowments grew by 10.8% to £4.57bn, in large part due to profitable investments from Oxford University Endowment Management, who manage the colleges’ portfolios.

However, while all colleges saw a growth in net assets, the highest rates of growth were weighted towards those at the upper end of the wealth scales.

The two colleges with the lowest levels of annual growth – Worcester and Green Templeton – are both in the bottom half of colleges for net assets, ranking 25th and 33rd respectively.

Meanwhile, the three richest colleges – St John’s, Christ Church, and All Souls – grew by over £140 million in the space of the year, or approximately 10% each.

The two colleges with the highest growth rate between 2016 and 2017 were Keble, which grew almost 36% to £126 million, and New College, up 27% to £287 million.

As well as the highest levels of growth being reserved to the richest colleges, there also appears to be clear links between the wealth of a student’s college and how well they perform academically.

Cherwell analysis of Norrington Table data between 2006-2017 shows that seventeen of the top twenty best academically performing colleges are also among the top twenty richest colleges.

Merton, New, Magdalen, and St John’s top the tables for best average results in Finals examinations – all of which also sit in the top six for largest endowments (excluding All Souls, which does not feature in the Norrington Table).

Harris Manchester is the institution with the lowest average Norrington Table score, and is also the poorest college.

The poorest undergraduate college, Mansfield, does not perform much better, finishing 27th out of the thirty ranked.

The impact of wealth upon colleges differing levels of educational and pastoral support has long been of interest. In 2002, Oxford SU released a report stating that disparities in college wealth meant that students “are far from guaranteed a common educational experience, with detriment not only to their academic performance but also to their general welfare and financial condition”.

The report noted that poorer colleges had smaller libraries – 160,000 volumes at Christ Church compared with 40,000 at Wadham – and fewer computers.

They also paid fellows less, making it harder to attract the best to their colleges.
Poorer colleges had a higher ratio of students to tutors, ranging from 12.1:1 at Magdalen to 21.5:1 at Pembroke.

President of Oxford SU, Kate Cole, told Cherwell: “Sadly, the disparities revealed by our report in 2002 are still very real, and I suspect that the link to academic performance is still significant.

“This imbalance creates a considerable gulf in the “Oxford” student experience, and whilst we recognise that plenty of students end up having a good time no matter which college or PPH they go to, the financial, academic, and welfare impacts can be substantial.

“It’s also not something that is commonly discussed when choosing colleges, so the SU have been trying to improve information through initiatives like the alternative prospectus, and the issue remains very much a campaigning priority for us.”

According to the 2002 report, the University’s efforts to counter the injustices by requiring the richer colleges to subsidise the poorer had a negligible impact.

Income redistribution, first introduced in the 19th century, succeeded only in ensuring that the less well endowed colleges did not “cease to operate as institutions”.

The University’s current guidance to prospective students insists that all colleges “have high academic standards”, and that “on the whole, colleges have more similarities than differences”.

However, it does suggest that applicants should consider the facilities and grants on offer at the different colleges.

A spokesperson for the University told Cherwell: “The University works in partnership with colleges to ensure a consistently high quality of academic experience for students.

“The University offers means tested financial support to eligible student offer holders that is college-blind. The University has also set out recommended patterns of teaching for undergraduate courses to guide college tutors, and it provides central counselling and disability advice services to complement the pastoral support provided by individual colleges.”

The financial woes of poorer colleges can push some officials to desperate measures. In 2002, Pembroke College reportedly offered to create an extra place for a student on its law course in return for a £300,000 donation.

In a covertly taped interview recorded by a reporter for The Sunday Times, the Reverend John Platt, a senior fellow at Pembroke, admitted that the college had struck similar deals in the past because it was “poor as shit”.

According to The Oxford Magazine – an independent publication edited by academics of the University – the willingness of members of Pembroke College to create a place for a student in return for a donation was the “understandable act of the officers of an impoverished college”.

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