What is the deal with colleges?

When University of Cambridge is mentioned, one of the first things that come to mind are the constituent colleges of this institution. Trinity, St. John’s, King’s, Queen’s, Jesus. All of these are well established terms. But that is what they in my experience remain in most people’s mind. Just terms usually considered to be outdated residuals of the University’s millennium long history. I must admit, unsurprisingly so. This institution is full of them. In this case though, I would like to argue against this idea. After over a year and a half of my studies here, I see colleges as an ingenious and surprisingly modern solution of a seemingly impossible task that every university has to deal with.

The view that the colleges are constituent parts of the University that I used in the introduction is actually not very accurate. Colleges exist in parallel with the university and are more less independent. They have a separate budget (part of the student’s tuition fees goes to the University, part to the college) and their roles are completely different. Whilst the university deals with the academic side of education, the colleges take care of everything else. They are in charge of the admissions process, provide accommodation and catering for students, take care of their welfare as well as supporting them academically through their demanding degree via supervisors, directors of studies and personal tutors.

This clear separation of the two basic pillars of university education ensures that neither of them is left behind. The curriculum is carefully thought through, because its creators did not have to think about student’s wellbeing and the accommodation is well maintained, because the college does not have to build new lecture theatres. This is by no means the only way to achieve this, but the administrative advantage of this system is indisputable.

Well informed reader could easily anticipate this conclusion. What might be of a greater surprise is the tremendous positive impact colleges have on the social side of life at the University. Current setup of the education system often leads to the students feeling in opposition to the institution, no matter its intentions. This conflict is further amplified when student enters higher education, due to the sudden increase of number of students and a rather less personal approach. In consequence, this may lead to anxiety, sometimes even more serious mental health issues. When it comes to the more demanding universities such as Cambridge, the problem is even more prominent. College system at least partially solves this. The college is for the student a safe harbour, home far from home and its only interest is to make sure the student is well. As such it becomes a valuable ally in the unwanted, yet unavoidable conflict with the giant antient institution.

College is not only a substitute home, but also a substitute family. Social bonds are simply created much more easily at a party in a college bar or while cooking together than at a lecture, where most of one’s mental capacity is occupied by trying to understand its content. Furthermore, since the colleges are not divided up according to subjects, people that one meets every day are much more diverse than at other universities, which gives rise to very interesting interdisciplinary debates.

Remembering how important colleges are in students’ life, it is only natural that being a member of a college becomes in the university community a part of one’s identity. Hand in hand with identity comes also competition, which brings along stereotypes. St. John’s is posh, Downing alumni are the best lawyers, Trinity students are the most hardworking. And King’s is full of communists. Simplification and criminal generalisation. Sure. It is remarkable though, how accurately these stereotypes describe the general atmosphere of each college. This is because students apply to a concrete college, often after careful consideration of all the accessible information. Fortunately, this is not the case for all applicants, which together with the option of smaller colleges to admit unsuccessful candidates of the overfilled more well-known colleges ensures the desired plurality.

The question that comes to mind is why such an effective system has not been adopted by other universities. It is because despite all its advantages it comes with one crucial complication. It requires an unbelievable number of academic and administration staff. Without that, not every college will be able to provide the full support to all its students and potential inequality will grow. This number of staffs is plausible only for the world’s most prestigious universities. Among them, another problem arises. College system is inherently connected with the Oxbridge brand and marketing of the other universities would hardly be able to justify adopting such a distinctive element. I think therefore that college system will remain an enticement of the two most famous British universities. Despite that though, I think that in general terms it can be a great inspiration even for smaller institutions. Emphasis on student wellbeing and support is a value to be pursued by any university anywhere in the world.

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