Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge (England) - relationship with University & degrees

The type of university that I am most familiar with is the standard American university where Colleges are departments of the university that have no independent existence (e.g. the Board can simply dissolve the College of Engineering and transfer all the instructors, equipment, materials, and facilities to the College of Science, if it so chooses).

I seem to remember learning some time ago that the British universities of lore, Oxford and Cambridge, are not structured like this. I was under the impression (I may have been told this by a teacher years ago) that in days of old when bandits bold roamed the seven seas, there were two ways to get a degree at Oxford or Cambridge, either by enrolling in the university as a full student, paying tuition, and attending classes (i.e. like your random State U today), or by enrolling as an external candidate and taking exams only (if you passed enough of them, you got a degree). The first option was expensive, and the second was arduous but didn’t hit you so hard in the wallet. Of course, informal study groups soon arose to help students who chose the second option because they either couldn’t afford the full tuition or didn’t want to pay it. Over time, these study groups became formalized, becoming educational institutions that charged tuition and hired their own teachers, but could not grant degrees, for which the students were required to go to the University proper and take the exams as an external candidate. Of course, the Colleges would be preparing the student for the eventual University exams, but the College wouldn’t have actual control over it.

  1. Is this accurate?
  2. Is this fundamentally still the case? Could a random group of PhD’s, MA’s, and aspiring students found the “College of 1337” in someone’s basement and start prepping candidates for Oxford or Cambridge exams, or would Oxford or Cambridge refuse the applications and say, “Sorry, you can’t register for exams nowadays unless you are enrolled in a recognized (how?) College.” Or, alternately, could someone audit classes at Florida State and fly twice a year to England for Oxford exams? If this was once possible but is no longer possible, when did policy change?

No, not really, although I can see why you might have misunderstood.

The colleges originated simply because students needed somewhere to stay. They were little more than independent halls of residence. (And until the Reformation many of the students were members of monastic orders and so stayed in houses belonging to their own order.) Students were expected to find their own accommodation, so staying in a college made no difference to what they paid the university. The tuition, in the form of lectures, offered by the university was the same for everyone. Over time the colleges began to provide private tuition and this eventually became more important than the university lectures. And there’s a chicken-and-egg issue involved here, as no one’s quite sure whether the supplementary tuition developed because the lectures were inadequate/unsuitable/boring or the lectures became less important because the supplementary tuition was available. And there’s another factor that had nothing to do with which teaching method might have been more effective. Organised colleges were popular with the university and with parents simply because it made it a bit easier to control what was essentially a bunch of teenage boys.

So it came to be the rulle that all students had to be members of a recognised college or hall, and meanwhile the colleges collectively (or, more particularly, the college heads) gained control of the university administration. The existing colleges thus had little reason to expand their collective monopoly. Unless, that is, any proposed new college came with a very wealthy benefactor. Until university departments began to be created in the nineteenth century, almost all the academics held only college positions.

So the pattern was that all students were taught mainly by their colleges, but that they were then examined by the university, which alone could award degrees. The only major exceptions to this were those very well-connected young men who might be awarded degrees without attending the university at all and without taking any exams. But those were really just a type of honorary degree and those receiving them were usually attendants of visiting VIPs. Indeed, such young men, if they did attend, often didn’t bother taking a degree anyway, as they had no obvious practical need for such a thing. There were, it is true, different types of students based on wealth. However, those distinctions mostly applied within the colleges, with poorer students being allowed to pay reduced fees in return for performing menial duties around the college.

The basic distinction between the university and the colleges - that the colleges provide tuition (although this varies by subject), as well as accommodation, while the university provides lectures (and laboratories etc.), controls the examinations and awards degrees - still applies. There are also strict residence requirements and most degrees can only be given to students who have attended one of the constituent colleges.

That said, both Oxford and Cambridge do have external courses, mostly for some higher degrees and other qualifications. But there is no doubt that the collegiate structure seriously inhibited that development. That was why, when extramural education did develop in England, the field was dominated instead by the University of London and, more recently, by the Open University. It’s the one thing Oxbridge knows they do less well than they should.

Interesting. I was picturing the ability for people to found colleges pretty much as the market permits -e.g. “This semester, three new Colleges opened to prep students for Oxford exams, North Arena Hall, which uses Scientology’s ‘Study Technology’, Schneider/Juniper Hall, which trains students in advanced mnemonic and memorization techniques and helps students pass the exams not by fully digesting the material, but by memorizing the textbook from cover to cover and therefore able to make the exams virtually Open Book, and the College of Victor Park, which uses a brutal regime of discipline, with weekly quizzes for which any grade under 90% results in at least 5 hours of waterboarding. These Colleges are targeting students whose personalities or aptitudes don’t mesh well with the existing ones.”

Is there a good resource that would help a college educated person who is familiar with modern American state schools to understand Oxbridge as it has existed throughout time?

Additionally, colleges can change affiliations. I believe that Imperial College, for example, has sometimes been independent and sometimes been affiliated with the University of London.

It’s a similar situation in India. Colleges can change affiliations and I believe there are cases in which large, state-controlled universities find it difficult to say exactly how many colleges come under their aegis.

Calcutta’s most respected college, Presidency College, recently disaffiliated itself with the University of Calcutta and has even renamed itself Presidency University.

Interesting. How does this actually work in real life? E.g. if the University doesn’t know how many colleges it has, how does it determine who is allowed to attend exams for credit? Do you just apply to take the exam (remembering that your advisor told you that if you aren’t in a “real” College or if your College is not properly under the aegis of the University to the extent that the College is informed of curriculum changes, your chances of passing are slim), or does the College need to “arrange” it for you? If you are enrolled in a College that is associated with a University because you want a degree from that University, and the College suddenly breaks away, does that mean you are no longer a candidate at the University unless you quickly gain admission into a loyal College, or does that mean you are still a candidate that is now at a terrible disadvantage because you have lost much of your support network and now must brave future exams on your own unless you affiliate with another College?


University Dean: “We don’t recognize the ‘College of the South Side Hall’. Your students may not take this semester’s exams.”
College Administrator: “The previous Dean allowed our students to, and told us that we were a, quote, ‘Irregular but Recognized College’. This isn’t fair, we have been telling our students all along that they will be taking exams this month.”
University Dean: “Bummer, man! The University recently passed a new policy stating that Irregular Colleges will hereafter not be recognized.”

I can’t answer your questions except to the extent that it is important to remember that Indian students, especially at smaller, less prestigious colleges, have a tendency to riot and threaten the lives of exam proctors when they’re displeased.