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Not all made equal: Why your college really matters

Oxford and Cambridge are the two diamonds in the crown of British university education, held up by academics, journalists, or whoever makes all those league tables, as the best universities in the world. However, atomised into 39 and 31 colleges respectively, they are at heart federations of much smaller educational institutions and economic units. To the endless confusion of my friends from home, it is in these dinky, quasi-monastic micro-unis that we not only live and socialise but (in contrast to Durham or York) are also taught our degrees. The fundamental Oxbridge unit is the college. 

So far, so good, right? It’s a charming quirk of our university that allows us to develop close relationships with our tutors and fellow students. It’s what makes an Oxbridge education so coveted. I, for one, am certainly a beneficiary of this system, given that I go to St John’s, the richest college at Oxford, deemed the best Oxbridge college by The Telegraph in 2021 (shameless boasting, I know). 

It’s a different story for my girlfriend at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge: one of the poorest colleges at the university which first opened its doors to undergraduates to 2021. Next year, she will pay £6,000 more rent than I do to live away from the college site and the city centre. Some students are even at risk of homelessness due to a shortage of accommodation. Hall is only open for dinner a few days each week and prices are not subsidised as they are at John’s. When visiting, I feel that her experience of Oxbridge is radically different from mine. These differences aren’t all negative: Lucy Cavendish’s heritage as a force for women’s education is something to be proud of (by contrast I don’t particularly associate with the fusty early modern men venerated by portraiture in the hall at St John’s). But this isn’t much comfort when you see the rent charges. 

Within Oxford, there are such a range of factors that lead to the stratification of colleges. Age, wealth, and prestige all have a bearing on a student’s university experience, as does location within the city. Rent at St John’s may be as much as 71% less than at Pembroke, but it’s also the book and travel grants, free language lessons, and accommodation on the main college site for every single year of your degree that entrenches the difference between colleges. 

To someone with no Oxbridge alumni in the family (like me or my girlfriend), college choice is something of a Russian roulette. Sure, you can read every college’s near-identical platitudes about their welcoming and diverse community on the university website, and you can even check rent prices (my sole motivation to apply to St John’s). But if nobody tells you of the significance of the choice, or you are pooled and offered a place at a different college, then you have little control of what kind of Oxbridge experience you will get: it’s out of your hands. 

What makes matters worse is that several of the colleges that take the most state comp students and Oxford Bursary recipients are at the wrong end of the college inequality spectrum. This compounds the socio-economic inequalities that exist among students and with university-wide student initiatives seemingly in a vacuum, there is nothing to level the playing field. 

I’m not saying that it’s time to revisit the collegiate system altogether. However, it’s time that the central university – at both Oxford and Cambridge – step in to ensure a minimum standard of financial support, accommodation provision, and welfare help that the Oxbridge name leads us to expect. Addressing the wider inequalities that are borne from college disparities means raising state comp representation and then equalising it across colleges: no more state school ‘stat-padding’ from one or two colleges. The efforts of these colleges, like Mansfield and Lucy Cavendish, are laudable, but due to their small endowments, they often serve to underline the socio-economic dimension of the college ‘hierarchy’. After all, it’s not Christ Church or Magdalen that struggle to house their students or shelter them from the ludicrously high cost of living. 

Both universities need to ensure that all students have the same chance of receiving an offer from the most ‘attractive’ colleges, and that if pooled, this will not jeopardise students’ economic security and stop them from prospering while at Oxbridge. 

For one, this means bringing the SU and its campaigns back from the brink to offer support for students that rises above the unequal college framework. But we must go much further. Students need a more ambitious package of measures that would lead the central university to force colleges to help each other out where necessary. Until then, as the gap between endowments grows, the ‘Oxbridge experience’ will mean increasingly different things for different students. The college system should be a strength of Oxbridge, not its weakness.

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