– notes, frequently asked questions and useful links from the archivist and curator of manuscripts at Balliol College, University of Oxford. Opinions expressed are the author's own.

Q&A Oxford & Cambridge

Q: Where is the university campus in Oxford?

A: There is none. The University and college buildings are to be found throughout the city. Faculty and department buildings and libraries etc are not generally open to the public, except for advertised public lectures, concerts etc. Many colleges open their grounds to the public in the afternoons, but it is best to check ahead of time, as they may close at short notice for private events, vacations, maintenance work or study periods. A map of University buildings and colleges can be found here.

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.

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 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 (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. 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.

Q: What’s so special about about the system of learning and teaching at Oxford and Cambridge?

A: The tutorial system provides undergraduates with direct, and in many cases one-on-one, weekly contact with experts in their academic field(s). Students are required to prepare an essay or other work, which they read or present to the tutor during the weekly tutorial (‘supervision’ at Cambridge). The student’s work is discussed on the spot and the next week’s assignment given. The student is also required to attend University departmental lectures, seminars, labs etc as well as private study, but the tutorial is the core of undergraduate teaching. The tutorial system is emphasised more in Oxford than at Cambridge. Here is a Learned Article about the history, relevance and efficacy of the Oxford tutorial.

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