Q&A – university and colleges at Oxford
Q: I’m confused about the relationship between Oxford University and the colleges.
A: The relationship between the colleges and the University of Oxford is not obvious to anyone who has not experienced it. There is a very short summary on the Oxford website here.
Colleges are the basis of undergraduate life. Students live, eat and do their laundry in their colleges. Undergraduates use their college libraries, not the Bodleian (central University library). There are of course exceptions – department libraries, and the Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library, which is the undergraduate reading room. They play sports for their college against other colleges, drink in the college bar and may worship (or attend concerts) in their college chapel. Their academic and personal tutors will be Fellows of their college, and much of their learning will take place within the college walls, though lectures and seminars may take place in university departments or lecture rooms in other colleges. Academic supervision is college-based and there are periodic college exams. Historically, the college has been a place for students to live and prepare for University examinations. The University is the degree-granting body (strictly speaking, nobody ‘graduates from’ a college) and sets the exams required to obtain a degree. It also has faculties and departments much as any other university does. Most non-academic staff in a college will be employed only by that college; academic staff may hold joint college-university posts, or be employed only by a college (lecturers) or by the University (many science research staff, Professors etc. ) Just to muddy the waters, Professors and some other university-employed academics are given membership of a college, or at least of its Senior Common Room (SCR) to provide them with a friendly social ‘home’ in Oxford. This does not make them full voting members of Governing Body… The college systems in Oxford and Cambridge are somewhat different, but they are much more similar to each other than they are to any other university.
Don’t be surprised (or discouraged) if you are still confused. There’s always wikipedia. For more information about University admissions and choosing a college, see the University’s Admissions pages, as well as the Admissions page on any college’s website.