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The hidden Oxford experience: Transparency in college disparities

In a January 2023 address, Chancellor Lord Patten welcomed the new Vice-Chancellor, Irene Tracey, and discussed the challenges which lay for Oxford University, and its collegiate structure, in the future ahead. There he acknowledged the “wide divergence in the funding of individual colleges from their own resources” which “can lead to what many believe is sometimes an unequal student experience across the same university.” 

“When we look at some of these individual internal issues, I recall the wise advice of Tancredi in the greatest European political novel, The Leopard – ‘things have to change in order to remain the same.’ Vice-Chancellor Irene Tracey has also previously referred to “unevenness” between colleges, but compared it to differences in quality across departments or in the varying experience of the University’s academics. 

A Cherwell investigation into the University’s rhetoric, its communications to prospective applicants, and the financial structures underlying and attempting to address the divergence in college funds uncovers the administration’s current approach with regards to college disparities. A conservative suite of remedial measures is the preferred solution to an unequal University experience across Oxford’s 39 colleges. 

College financial structures

College financial structures are long-standing and interconnected. The University’s total endowment, valued at above £8 billion in 2023, is the largest amongst British universities. Colleges account for around £6 billion of this, and rely on the gains from their endowment to provide the annual income which funds day-to-day operations and scholarships, prizes and grants. Christ Church College relies on its endowment to provide nearly half of its annual income, and it expects this dependency to “almost certainly increase in future years as other sources of income are likely to grow slowly, if at all, in real terms.”

The endowments of colleges have long-term consequences on their finances and their ability to provide for students. The University has a designated fund manager, Oxford University Endowment Management, which is responsible for the endowments of the majority of Oxford colleges – though some, like Jesus College, do not opt in. 

The fund describes the management of the endowments of colleges as “unlike traditional investment management because of the nature of the beneficiaries. For most pools of capital, such as pension funds, the beneficiaries are alive. For endowments, the beneficiaries may not even be born yet.”

The long-term nature of endowments means that current inequalities may have lasting consequences. The endowments of wealthy colleges like St John’s College or Magdalen College can total over £700 million; for poorer colleges like Mansfield College or Lady Margaret Hall, endowments can be below £50 million. Worse, the gap is growing: in 2009, Christ Church College’s endowment (£261 million) was worth about eleven times St Anne’s College (£24 million) – now, Christ Church College’s endowment (£758 million) is worth about seventeen times St Anne’s College’s (£44 million).

University communications

The University of Oxford’s online portal for Admissions, its principal means of communications with prospective students, provides some general indication about the present inequalities between colleges. But these statements of difference are often phrased ambiguously or without much detail. 

The implication is that the perception of an unequal University experience shared “by many” rather than the financial divergence among colleges itself which constitutes the real challenge to the continuity of the collegiate structure. But these statements of difference are often phrased ambiguously or without much detail. 

A section on the Oxford page College Life, states “each college is unique, but generally their facilities are pretty similar.” Similarly ambiguous statements are found with references to the difference in financial support offered by colleges under Help with the cost: “Many colleges have generous support funds or awards which may be available…”

Official Oxford promotional material portrays the collegiate system as a quirky feature of Oxford life and the applicant’s choice of a college as a relatively unimportant decision. The admissions page “What are Oxford Colleges” advertises a 2019 video which asks “Does it matter which college you go to?” before answering with an emphatic “Not Really.”  It goes on to assure the viewer that “once you’re [at Oxford], you’ll no doubt think your college is the best.” 

The financial disparities between colleges are nonetheless acknowledged by the University in a different section titled Do I pay to live in my college? which provides prospective students with a table displaying the differences in accommodation costs across all of Oxford’s colleges, updated to reflect the academic year 2023-4. The table shows an estimate of likely costs for accommodation and meals as £6,201 for St. John’s College, against £8,989 at University College. That “costs vary across colleges and are likely to increase annually” is noted for reference.

The rate of open applications provides further evidence that a non-negligible number of prospective applicants do not assign great importance to their choice of college: in the most recent application cycle, 16% of applicants made open applications. In view of the evidence provided, this may be related to the University’s ambiguous rhetoric on the importance of a college choice.

In a 2021 Telegraph article, Dr Samina Khan, the University’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions, advised students thinking about making an open application to go for it: “Sometimes students worry about having to make a college choice, so we encourage students to make open applications.”

St Hilda’s College told Cherwell they would encourage students to look at factors of a college such as size, age, location, distance to departments and onsite facilities as factors that they would encourage prospective applicants to look at – and concluded that they “wouldn’t advocate applying to a college solely because it’s wealthy.” 

Nonetheless, the wealth of a student’s college can have a major impact on their Oxford experience. Previous Cherwell investigations have shown that a college’s wealth is strongly correlated with the rent it charges students and their academic performance in Finals.

The College Contributions Scheme

Awareness of college disparities isn’t new: in 1997, the North Commission of Inquiry stated that “concerns arising from differences in the levels of resources available to different colleges have been the subject of much discussion in Oxford in recent years.” The Commission assessed the measures put in place at the time to remedy college disparities, and succinctly concluded that “successive schemes over the last thirty years (…) have certainly not succeeded in “solving the problem” of the poorer colleges.”

Thirty years later, the University finds itself at a similar juncture. The University’s current flagship programme aimed at attenuating college disparities, the College Contributions Scheme (CCS), has been criticised by poorer colleges and Private Permanent Halls for being “ineffective.” 

The CCS, approved as part of the University’s Statutes in 2009, is aimed at redistributing wealth amongst colleges. Poorer colleges apply for grants from the College Contributions Committee, and the Committee awards grants from the College Contributions Fund, which is funded by wealthier colleges.

In the current academic year, a group of 12 colleges, including St. Peter’s College, Keble College and St. Anne’s College were recipients of grants administered by the committee – most of the almost  £3 million distributed among them are to be allocated towards ‘Maintenance and refurbishment’. 

Only St Edmund Hall will utilise a grant of  £18,500 to cover teaching costs, alongside a further £38,500 which has also been allocated to the college for use across the following two academic years, however, access to funds in subsequent years “shall be dependent on the success with which each college meets certain conditions laid down by Council on the recommendation of the College Contributions Committee.” 

Colleges which accept a high proportion of state-school students are also likely to have a comparatively small endowment, while state-school students may be the ones most in need of generous financial support. Of the ten colleges which accepted the highest proportion of state school students this year, four have been recipients of grants from the Oxford College Contributions Fund in the last three years, including Mansfield College, where a University-leading 93.2% of the British student body are state-school educated.

The collegiate system is rife with divergences, and the University is keenly aware of this fact. For the time being, however, it appears to be attempting an iterative ‘band aid’ approach to primarily remedy the impression of inequality, which it regards as more problematic than the widening financial disparities across college funds in themselves. 

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