Notes on Collegiate Universities


Mars has a nice post about his frustrations with the collegiate universities. Between the two of us, we’ve studied at each of the UK’s three collegiate universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Durham), so I thought I’d reply with my own post. The following is based on my own observations as a foreigner.

Colleges represent the intersection of its members academic and non-academic lives. Durham colleges focus more on pastoral life compared to their Oxbridge bretheren. They provide a built-in social structure: students common rooms (student government), social hierarchy of faculty/staff (e.g. porters)/students, extracurricular activies (e.g. sports).

Undergraduates seem to benefit the most from the college environment. Colleges ease the transition to living away from home by providing a small, familiar independent community. This also holds for foreign students (postgrads included), for whom the college eases the transition into a different culture. Further, in Oxbridge, the undergraduate tutorial system gives students a level of personal attention in their studies that has no equivalent in the US.

Postgraduates and postdocs are academically responsible to their departments, so their colleges are primarily social outlets. While some postgrads find their own social structure outside of the college (e.g. university societies), I have found the college to be a very important part of a balanced postgraduate lifestyle by providing a venue to interact with people outside one’s department.

For senior members (faculty), I suspect that colleges represent a degree of bureaucratic independence as small communities in which fellows have significant influence. As Mars notes, this bureaucracy can be a bit redundant. For example, students have to apply both to a college and a department. On the other hand, faculty at a given college then have a larger measure of autonomy in selecting whom they deem fit for their college, instead of having their vote diluted by other faculty in the departmental selection.

As smaller communities, colleges provide a stronger sense of identity than the university at large. Colleges have their own scarves (and other `stash’), traditions, and societies. Where American students will cheer their university’s football team against a rival university, `Doxbridge’ students cheer their college rowers against other colleges. (The main exception being the big Oxbridge university matches, especially the boat race.) From an American point of view, this would contribute to alumni donations; but few places outside of the US have `economised’ the university experience the way American universities have.

Departments seem to lose a bit from the college system. One DAMTP faculty member expressed regret that most of his colleagues would return to their colleges to dine (for free) rather than having lunch in the department where one can `talk maths’ informally.

I should note that many American universities are trying to imitate the successes of the collegiate system. To note a few that I am somewhat familiar with: Harvard has a system of `houses’ for its undergraduates (H. Georgi is the master of Leverett house). Cornell’s new West Campus Initiative is an attempt to extend the academic environment into residential communities (one of which is named after Hans Bethe). Stanford’s Residential-Education includes dormitories which replace standard freshmen courses with an integrated dorm-based curriculum and academic theme-dorms. Princeton seems to also be based on colleges and is even planning a May Ball. American fraternities also play a similar (albeit smaller) social role as UK colleges.

Another uniquely American outgrowth of this small-learning community movement has been the development of ethnic-theme dorms for cultural immersion, though this often brings up questions of whether such dorms promote or inhibit ethnic integration.

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