Life at Oxford: the Good, the Bad (and the Ugly)

28 November 2018

Shiri Avni

    Table of Contents:

A lot of people have asked me what Oxford is like. It’s hard to summarize this in a short post, but hopefully the following will give you a better overview of what to expect:

The Good

Scenery Let’s start with the fact that Oxford is gorgeous. With its sprawling gardens, majestic colleges, and beautiful, lush parks, it seems like a town from a fairy tale. Whenever I needed to take a short break from my thesis work, I could leave my department, walk for two minutes, and find myself near a calm stream filled with ducks and flowers all around. This tranquil environment is something that I have sorely missed since having left Oxford.

Events Oxford abounds with interesting events, talks, and workshops year round. No matter your interests, there’s probably an event going on that can satisfy your curiosity. For the music lovers out there, Oxford is full of concerts and choirs, some of which you can join as well.

Harry Potter Film Sites As a serious Harry Potter fan, I loved taking my visiting friends to sites where Harry Potter was filmed. From the staircase in which the first years entered the Great Hall to the tree where Mad-Eye Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret, it’s a wonderful place for HP fans.

Colleges Just like Hogwarts, every university student at Oxford has a house, also known as a “college”. In your dorms, you will live with people from your college and you will normally eat at your college cafeteria with your college peers. Your college will often host events such as barbecues or karaoke nights that are only available for college members. As in the Harry Potter world, when you play on a sport team, you will be representing your college and playing with your college colleagues. In short, your college can make your Oxford experience more warm and comforting, because it provides you with a more intimate environment where you will get to know a small group of people very well.

oxford colleges

Many of the older colleges look like castles

oxford tree

The Mad-Eye Moody tree

oxford church

A beautiful chapel inside one of the colleges

The (Slightly) Bad

Colleges Despite the pros of colleges, you may fall into a college that you won’t like as much. The HP analogy: imagine you’ve been sorted into Ravenclaw, but after a few months you find that you would really much rather be a Hufflepuff. Back to real life: some colleges are posh and showy, others are more traditional, and others are less multi-cultured. Some of my friends simply didn’t click very much with the other members of their college. The same traits which I described earlier and which can make your college very comforting, can also unfortunately make your Oxford experience more difficult. In plainer words, if you are in College A but actually discover that you really like College B, you’re still stuck in College A. You can’t just go into College B’s cafeterias, libraries, or attend their events; you also can’t switch colleges. The colleges are purposefully isolated, and if you don’t like your college, you won’t be able to integrate yourself into another one. That is why it is so important to think ahead of time about which college you want to apply for, and I provide a dedicated post with advice on how to make this decision.

Academic Dress Oxford takes its traditions seriously, and one of these traditions includes wearing an academic dress, also known as a “sub-fusc”. While I didn’t mind wearing the sub-fusc to the degree’s commencement and graduation ceremonies, having to wear them for exams was slightly vexing for me! In my undergrad, we would usually come to the exams dressed in sweatpants and baggy sweaters, which I find ideal after several nights of little sleep when attempting to cram material at the last minute. Putting it mildly, on exam mornings at Oxford I was not enthusiastic about dealing with bows, ties, and an uncomfortable gown. On the other hand, it brought me much amusement to look around at the other students in the exam room: it was very clear which students were British – they looked graceful and comfortable in their gowns – and which students were foreigners, fidgeting and awkward in their garments, with their bows tied messily and loosely around their necks!

The Ugly

College Funding Discrepancies The one thing that really bothered me about Oxford is the vast budget difference amongst colleges. While Oxford University has its own budget, so do each of the colleges. In fact, the sum of money that the colleges have is more than the total budget of the university itself! While some colleges have as little as $30 million to their name, others have a value of over half a billion dollars1. The reasons for this are historical, but the consequences are modern and negative: different colleges subsidize their students’ dorms, cafeteria food, textbooks in widely varying amounts.

In effect,

  1. Without a direct corresondance to food quality, some colleges charge 3 pounds a meal while others charge as much as 6.
  2. Two dorm buildings on the same street and similar in quality, but differing in college ownership, can vary by as much as 200 pounds a month in student rent.
  3. Some colleges cover all their students’ textbooks fees while others do not.
  4. Some colleges provide free laundry machines while others charge as much as 3 euro per load.
  5. Some colleges have gyms and others do not: those in the latter who wish to attend a gym must pay at one of the private gym in the town (it cost me 20 pounds a month).

This means that two students enrolled in the same degree but belonging to different colleges can rack up a difference of several thousand pounds a year simply due to the difference in college subsidization. While I was fortunate to be on a scholarship, many of my friends were not, and I did not find it fair that the financial burdens are so uneven. I sincerely hope that this issue will be addressed one day.

Relevant Posts:

A Year at Oxford - Coming with a Family
Oxford Scholarships & WHT
Oxford FAQ