The most striking difference between Oxford University and the majority of American—and British—universities, after tutorials, is the collegiate system. Students who apply to Oxford University are admitted to one of its 38 colleges and 6 permanent private halls, which are spread throughout the city of Oxford. Permanent private halls operate roughly the same as the colleges, except that they have a specific religious affiliation. The colleges and halls are independent entities, rather like states in the US, with the university being the ‘federal government’ that oversees them. The colleges are all relatively small, the largest being St. Catherine’s College (my college!) with about 800 graduate and undergraduate students. Many of the colleges are significant smaller, with some halls having fewer than 100 students. The small size encourages a strong sense of community, as well as strong inter-collegiate rivalries.
The age of the colleges varies from those founded in the 13th century (University, Merton, and Balliol Colleges) to newcomers like St. Catherine’s in 1963 and Green Templeton in 2008 (from a merger of Green and Templeton Colleges). Due to the immense age of the university, the architecture of Oxford spans the centuries from medieval to gothic to modern, and everything in between. The character of each college also varies widely. Each one has something that it is famous for and that it prides itself on. Christ Church has its beautiful cathedral and meadow, Worcester (pronounced “Wooster”) has its brightly colored chapel and its orchard, St. Catherine’s has its open, modern architecture and very friendly atmosphere, and so on. Every Oxford college is unique.
Despite their differences, the colleges all share the same basic structure and function. Each college accepts students for almost any course of study; although some rarer subjects are only found in the larger colleges. Each college also houses its students, provides a dining hall, laundry facilities, a gym, and pretty much everything you would expect a college to have. Every college has a library, and most also have a chapel, some of which, such as Christ Church Cathedral, are truly spectacular. The colleges also tend to have the cheapest bars in town, as well as lounges (called Junior, Middle, and Senior Common Rooms for the undergraduates, grad students, and faculty respectively). The Common Rooms are also the names for the student government of each college.
Although much of student life is centered in college, much of a student’s academic life is often found outside of it. Every academic department has its own center located somewhere in the city, and most departments either have or share a library. Additionally, all tutors are affiliated with a college, and will generally hold their tutorials in their respective college or department headquarters. Lectures are held all throughout the university, some in departmental offices, some in libraries, some in colleges, and some in the university’s Examination Schools (where the end of the year exams are held, hence the name). Many clubs and societies are also university-wide, with their meetings held anywhere that is most convenient for the majority of their members. As a result, students find themselves travelling all over the beautiful city of Oxford during their three years at university, surrounded by the “dreaming spires”.