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Life at an Oxford PPH – communal or claustrophobic?

Despite being smaller in size and number, PPHs offer just as rich an Oxford experience as larger colleges

‘Yeah but it’s not a real college.’ Sound familiar? For us PPH dwellers it definitely does. Whether it’s a snobbish remark or, as is the case most often, a self-deprecating joke, the not particularly noticeable difference between a college and a permanent private hall is something students at PPHs are very aware of. ‘Oh so where is it?’ ‘Is it very religious?’ ‘I can’t believe you have so few people in your year.’ ‘That doesn’t look like a college.’… You get the gist.

In most respects, PPHs are almost indistinguishable from colleges. They have pets and libraries and quad(s), and all kinds of undergrads, from the blues athlete, to the rower, to the union hack. One important distinction is that PPHs tend to have less money than colleges, which sometimes limits the range of services they can offer to their students. Aside from that, their lack of famous alumni, and the fact that most students were pooled there from the colleges they’d applied to, I would say that the student experience is very similar to that in the average college. A lot of us live on site, we have meals in our hall, drinks in our bar, formals, bops, and JCR meetings.

What is definitely a significant difference is that students in PPHs live as part of a much smaller student community. I’ve heard many people refer to that community as a family, and however cliché that may sound, I think it comes very close to the reality. This is not to say that we all get along all the time. Like in every family, there are dramatic fallings out and people who no longer speak to each other. There are also the family gossips, who somehow seem to be aware of all the goings on, and it’s common for people to know about each other’s romantic dalliances and friendship group dramas. On the other hand, we also have the parent-like figures that you turn to for advice, and who will look after you when you’ve had one VK too many. Nobody’s anonymous: you can sit anywhere in the dining hall and the people next to you will know your name, and usually a lot more. Even though we sometimes pretend not to, we do all know each other, sometimes a little too well. Our JCRs are our living rooms, where we go to procrastinate, and someone’s always around for a cup of tea and a quick chat – or alternatively an hours-long darts game. The small population makes inter-year and inter-subject friendships the norm and being the only student in your year to study a certain subject is not unheard of. Sometimes the atmosphere does get stifling, and small communities, just like large ones, aren’t suited to everyone. I don’t think it’s necessarily a better nor a worse experience, simply a different one.

It can be easy to integrate almost entirely in this small bubble, to eat every meal there and always work in the library, to the extent that the wider university feels very separate. On the other hand, it is also very possible to do the opposite, especially since many of us go to different colleges for tutorials, and if you don’t live on site you may have no reason to come in at all. I find that most people fall somewhere in between, taking an active part in college (PPH) life, but also being involved in university-wide societies, of which PPH students make up sometimes a surprisingly large proportion. The small nature of PPHs encourages this, mostly due to the limited opportunities they offer to meet new people, which we all enjoy from time to time. Another factor that pushes PPH students to look out of their small communities is a lack of our own sports teams, which means that the athletes among us must look outwards into the wider university to participate. The PPH’s own library may contain all a certain subject needs, and nothing for another, which means that depending on what you are studying, you might spend all your time there, or you may be forced to leave for the Bod, or RadCam, in both of which large numbers of PPH students can normally be found, perhaps also to enjoy the typically grand architecture their own buildings lack. 

However, I for one always enjoy eventually returning to my own modest home, with no gargoyles and only one quad but plenty of familiar faces. To have a much smaller, much more personal community within the large and sometimes intimidating one of the university reassures me that if I want, I don’t have to be around strangers. I can go somewhere where everyone knows my name, who my friends are – and the embarrassing thing I did last Thursday night.

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