Current Affairs

Oxford colleges struggle to clarify University guidelines

As Oxford colleges send out guidance to their undergraduate, taught postgraduate and postgraduate research students following the university-wide update this afternoon, many have struggled to shed light upon the vagaries of the University’s plans for Hilary Term.

Most of the communications from colleges to their students that have been seen by The Oxford Blue are consistent both with each other and with the University’s overarching message that students’ returns should be delayed wherever possible. The fundamental point that, as New College put it to their students, those “studying on undergraduate and postgraduate taught programmes will be provided with online learning and asked not to return to College until January 25th” seems to be generally accepted by all the college responses we have seen so far. The main exception seems to be on postgraduate taught students, the status of whom Christ Church said was “not yet clear”. 

However, how colleges will deal with the practical implications of the guidance is likely to be causing students significant stress at this point, and the colleges’ emails do not yet offer much clarity on these matters.

For instance, the decision whether students who are either encouraged or instructed not to return up to and beyond January 25th will be charged for their accommodation, if provided by the college, is not a closed case. Though both Lady Margaret Hall and New College have suggested that they believe it is normal for students who are not allowed to take up residency not to be charged, neither college could give their students immediate certainty. 

There is also potential cause for unease based on individual college’s interpretations of who qualifies to return under the extenuating circumstances criteria outlined by the University. St John’s College, for example, wrote that: “We have already considered the cases of students who require additional or special support… the arrangements for them stand. We are not now in a position to consider further requests”. 

This may cause particular consternation for those who thought that the previous plan for a staggered return for students would give them hope for a definite return date, and the academic support in college that would come with it. A currently indefinite suspension of students’ returns may make the situation of such students increasingly academically and mentally challenging. 

That notwithstanding, many colleges seem to be making a sincere attempt to assuage such students’ anxieties. Harris Manchester, Regent’s Park and New College are among colleges and permanent private halls to offer their students with channels through which to put forward their case for needing to return before January 25th. On the other hand, some students may want to complete their term’s study online in Hilary, and Regent’s Park has said that students wishing to do this should “discuss this initially with your Director of Studies”. Most other colleges did not appear to mention this possibility explicitly in their emails, although Christ Church did say that those who might want to discuss “waiving residency requirements” should not contact the college until next week, when they hope to have more information available to them.

This last example seems to summarise most colleges’ communications thus far. Colleges do have some latitude in how they deal with the new directives, particularly in the tone with which they address their students – with Christ Church emphasising that what is at stake with these changes are “literally an issue of life and death”. Nonetheless, they remain rather hidebound by fears of contradicting current or forthcoming University-wide instructions. As such, colleges seem to have attempted to give what certainty they can while providing varying degrees of support for their students. Ultimately, though, they are waiting and watching with the rest of the student community to see what the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, and the University of Oxford decide to do in the days and weeks ahead.

Mitch (he/ him) is Editor-in-Chief for Trinity term 2021 as well as a long-suffering Sunderland fan, keen runner and general sports obsessive. His other interests include indie music, arthouse cinema, and coffee.