I’ve had the opportunity to be affiliated to two colleges during my time at Oxford. I was at Univ for my BA in Oriental Studies (Egyptology) and am currently at St Cross (aka StX) for my DPhil in History.
So, how does being a postgrad at StX compare to being an undergrad at Univ (apart from my not being an undergrad anymore)?
StX is much more modern than Univ, having been founded in 1965. It was originally on St Cross Road beside the St Cross Church, before forming an arrangement with Pusey House and moving onto St Giles’. This means that a lot of the college buildings look older than you might expect of such a young college. We have a symbiotic relationship with Pusey House, as we share the space but are still two separately institutions – although Pusey House does double as our chapel, which is an amazing space.
Univ was founded in 1249 and is one of the contenders for oldest Oxford college (the others being Balliol and Merton). Its oldest standing buildings, found on the High Street, were built in the seventeenth century. Like StX, it has an amazing chapel, with spectacular stained-glass windows. There are also a lot of Victorian buildings on the main site, including the library, which was designed to look Gothic and which a lot of visitors think is a repurposed chapel. The college’s main site is imposing, and includes fascinating titbits such as the memorial statue of Percy Shelley that was originally intended for his burial in Rome and a huge statue of a pair of judges on the first floor of the college library that’s so heavy that the floor is reinforced.
At Oxford, undergraduate admissions are done by colleges and postgraduate by faculties. And yet, from my experience at least, StX still played a part in the proceedings.
I applied to StX for my DPhil because I wanted to see what being at a graduate-only college was like. Unfortunately, the admissions process got complicated because I needed to request that my conditional offer be waived because I wasn’t going to get my grade for my MA until Michaelmas Term had already started (if you want a downside to doing a twelve- instead of a nine-month masters). Even though I met the July deadline to send the request and required documents to the History Faculty, they didn’t respond. It wasn’t until September, when I was asked to pay the deposit on my college room, that the faculty responded – because StX intervened – so that I’d be able to start my course and take up my tenancy.
I didn’t actually apply to Univ for my BA. I applied to Queen’s, which is where the Professor of Egyptology and the subject’s library are based. But, my offer letter came from Univ. It was disappointing not to be accepted by my college of choice, but Univ boasts its own Egyptological fellows and most of the undergrads in the subject, so it was a good alternative.
I lived in college accommodation for all three years of my BA, and for the first year of my DPhil. I’d be happy to live in StX accommodation for more of my DPhil, but it just doesn’t have the capacity that Univ does. At StX, there are some rooms for continuing students but most of them are reserved for freshers. Univ, meanwhile, can accommodate most if not all of its undergrads, many of its postgrads, and a few fellows. I suppose that’s what comes of having several hundred years longer to develop your estates.
There was a disruptive flatmate in my StX accommodation, which doesn’t sound so bad but I’d had similar trouble throughout my undergrad at Univ so I was unsure how it would be dealt with. It was therefore a pleasant surprise when the StX accommodation staff immediately referred the offending student to the dean. In contrast, every time that there was a problem at Univ I was made to move rooms and nothing was said to the offending students.
I spent a year on the JCR Committee at Univ and have been on the MCR Committee at StX for two years (and am thinking of staying for a third year).
I’ve found that the two committees had different priorities – maybe that’s because JCR and MCR committees do, but not having been on the MCR Committee at Univ I can’t know for sure.
The StX MCR Committee is a cohesive group that has a close relationship with the college staff and sits on almost every, if not every, committee in the college. Basically, unless it’s reserved business, we’re involved and treated as equals. Univ’s JCR Committee didn’t feel cohesive – everyone met with either particular committees or individual members of staff, so that the only person with any oversight was the president. Perhaps these different impressions are because StX is a graduate-only college or has a particularly diverse student body.
Both colleges have well-stocked libraries, although with different things. StX doesn’t have much Egyptological material at all, but that’s not really an issue because there aren’t currently any students in the subject in the college except me. And the Sackler library, which houses the Egyptology department, is only next door.
At Univ, the library has at least the basics for Egyptology, seeing as it has the most undergrads and fellows in the subject. It’s especially good for the first year of the BA course, before students have specialised. The most annoying thing about it is that it’s one of the few college libraries not on SOLO, which is a small inconvenience if you’re actually a member of the college.
Some may argue that food is the most important aspect of college life. People at StX certainly do – apparently our food is legendary throughout the university.
There aren’t as many dinners at StX as there were at Univ. Univ had canteen-style breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day (with brunch instead at weekends) as well as formal dinners thrice a week, whereas StX only has lunch on weekdays, dinner on Tuesdays, and special dinners (which are like regular formals at other colleges) once a week or so. This places the emphasis at StX on self-catering, although a café has recently opened on site that serves breakfast and lunch on weekdays. At Univ, the emphasis was on eating in hall, because there were barely any student kitchens on main site and the ones that there were had minimal equipment to minimise the fire risk.
Overall, my experience at StX has been of a more relaxed and inclusive college than Univ, which might be because while doing a DPhil is stressful, I can safely say that it’s much less stressful than being an undergrad at Oxford.