The lady novelists of the previous century will probably begin this piece with an emotional “Last night, I dreamt I went to Oxford again.” I can’t begin a la Daphne du Maurier because I don’t dream of Oxford, nor any other place in particular. It holds various memories for me, but I just don’t dream longingly of “Cuckoo-echoing, bell swarmed, lack-charmed, rock-racked, river-rounded” towery city.
Once the educational behemoth of our Empire, Oxford was founded by a group of discontented and expelled students from University of Paris, so it was supremely ironic when my mom snubbed Oxford to pursue her academic life at Sorbonne. Within its foundation and the 16th centuries, many of nearly-forty colleges that make up the university now were founded, though none admitted women until the beginning of the 20th century.
In Oxford, academic dress is mandatory: it is simple (a gown, a cap, and a neckwear) but it is required for enrollment even. The dress is worn to all the dinners served in the Formal Hall (which vary from every night in some colleges to once a term in others), to chapel, to collections (fancy name for tests) and to matriculation of course. Under these gowns, another set of clothes, called subfusc (dark) is usually worn to formal occasion. Subfusc consists of a dark suit, socks and shoes coupled with white shirt, collar and tie. It is white blouse and dark tie, skirt, stockings, shoes and overcoat for girls. Despite all these restraining dress-codes, the denizens of the university overwhelming voted for the maintaining subfusc in 2006.
Undergraduates of the university are divided into commoners (those without a scholarship) and exhibitioners (those with scholarship fancily called ‘exhibition’). These two parts differ in their dress codes as well, with the latter notably having bell sleeves instead of folded streamers. If a student were to lament this complicated sartorial taste, he must be reminded of more complex dress adherences the faculty and administration have to suffer.
Students may name preferred colleges in their applications, but it is not always that they are put into their first-choices. In graduate levels, the Fellows of a College personally choose the students whose research area appeals to them. Because of the high volume of applications and the direct involvement of the faculty in admissions, students are not permitted to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year. For admission, knowledge of Ancient Greek was required until 1920, and Latin until 1960.
Oxford was founded with three colleges (University, Balliol, Merton) and Exeter and Oriel followed next. Most Oxford colleges have their equivalent sister colleges in Cambridge. In addition to living in colleges, students can opt to live in private halls, two of which (Blackfriars, Greyfriars) accompanied the university since the founding. Christ Church College is the largest, and had so far produced 16 British Prime Ministers. According to recent lists, fifty heads of state or government studied at Oxford; this includes 25 British Prime Ministers. 47 Nobel prize winners have studied or taught at Oxford. It has produced at least 12 saints, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury, and nine Olympic medal winners.
Academic hierarchy is complex in Oxford. The most senior member of each college is the Head of House, but his title varies from college to college. For instance, Head of the House is a Principal in Brasenose and Jesus, a Warden in All Souls, New College, and Greyfriars, a Master in Balliol, Pembroke, and University, a President in Magdalen, Trinity, and Corpus Christi, a Provost in Oriel, a Dean in Christ Church, a Rector in Lincoln and Exeter, and a Regent in Blackfriars. The list is exhaustive of all titles but not of all colleges. A university tradition is a rivalry between neighboring colleges, most famous between Balliol and Trinity and Christ Church and Pembroke. All colleges are answerable to the Conference of Colleges.
Oxford doesn’t award B.Sc. but only B.A. and B.F.A. (Bachelor of Fine Arts). The degree holders proceed in time (usually 7 years) to a M.A. In post-nominals , the degree is followed by “Oxon.”, short for (Academia) Oxoniensis. In the 1990s, Master of Engineering was introduced for the four-year science programmes. Dubiously named ‘doctorate in divinity’ is the highest degree the university has to offer, closely followed by civil law, medicine, letters and science in that particular order.
Oxford’s structure is collegiate which means it is a federation of various colleges and halls. The university’s formal head is a Chancellor but the position is nominal (same throughout the British Isles). The de facto head is the Vice-Chancellor, aided by five Pro-Vice-Chancellors, which altogether froms The University Council. Two proctors, who are elected annually, supervise discipline.
The academic departments are not affiliated with any particular college and offer independent research, lectures, syllabi and guidelines. Tutorial teaching for which Oxford and Cambridge is known for is organized by individual colleges. Contrary to popular beliefs, most colleges will have a broad mix of academics and students from a diverse range of subjects. University facilities (such as libraries, gyms) are provided on university level, departmental level and college level.
It is the university, not the colleges, that is responsible for degrees. One must pass two sets of examinations: the end of the first year exams called Honour Moderations (Prelims) and the end of the course the Final Honour School (‘Finals’). The academic year is divided into three terms, Michaelmas (Oct-Dec), Hilary (Jan-March) and Trinity (April-June). Academic coaching is for only eight weeks—shorter than any British University. The start of coaching is counted 1st week, 2nd week and so on, until 8th week. Then, when the coaching ends, the numbering during breaks became negative anteceding the 1st week of the succeeding term: like “minus first week” and “noughth week”. Weeks begin on a Sunday. Students are expected to study independently in the three vacations (Christmas, Easter and Long).
Although colleges have endowments, the University itself thrives on research grants. The University approximate has an income of half a billion pounds and the colleges have a quarter of a billion pounds. It is a significantly small operating budget in comparison to rich American Universities, like Harvard and Yale, Oxford is trying to compete.
What to see in Oxford (somewhat plagiarized from my travelogue)
The Bodleian is the main University Library. It hoses Divinity School Room, which has a magnificent vaulted Gothic ceiling. The Radcliff Camera, the most famous of all Oxford structures (a reputation confirmed by the presence of Japanese tourists who take millions of photos of the Camera (pun intended)) was a Baroque attachment which houses English, History, and Theology books. The Bodleian, the second-largest library in the UK, (after the British Library), also spreads over the famous the Old Schools Quadrangle. Its most notable possessions include Shakespeare First Folio and a Gutenberg Bible.
The Sheldonian Theatre, built by Christopher Wren (his first building), hosts the University’s Graduation, Congregation, concerts and other degree ceremonies. The beautiful ceiling inside depicts the triumph of religion, arts and science over envy, hatred, and malice.
The Ashmolean Museum, founded in 1683, is the oldest university museum in the world (and the oldest museum in Britain). It has works by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Turner, Raphael, Bellini, Rembrandt and Picasso, as well as treasures such as the Parian Marble and the 1000-year old Alfred Jewel.
Two of Oxford’s most interesting museums adjoin each other in Parks Road, the University’s Science Area. The Museum of Natural History contains a Tyrannosaurus rex and a stuff dodo—the most complete specimen found anywhere in the world. The museum also houses the office of the Simonyi Professorship of the Public Understanding of Science, currently held by the noted atheist, Richard Dawkins. Adjoining it is the legacy of General Augustus Pitt Rivers to the University: the Pitt Rivers Museum, founded in 1884, which houses the archaeological and anthropological collections.
The Oxford Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in the UK (the third-oldest in the world). Christ Church Picture Gallery holds a collection of over 200 old master paintings.