Your guide to the collegiate system in the UK

Nicole Wootton-Cane
Nicole Wootton-Cane

29 September 2020 • 4 min read

If you attend university in the UK, you may have come across the collegiate system. Although it is only used at a select few universities, they happen to be some of the ones you’ve probably heard of - Oxford and Cambridge ring any bells?

The collegiate system can be a little confusing - luckily we’re here to help.

What is the collegiate system?

The collegiate system is a way of organising students at universities. Students are assigned a college upon starting at the university, and they stay in this college for the rest of their time there. Colleges are part of universities, not separate teaching institutions, but at some universities students are taught in college. Most students live in their college at least for first year, and some live in college-provided accommodation for their whole degrees. Colleges are generally very communal, and home to their own societies, clubs, libraries, and dining halls. Students and academics alike are assigned to a college, and often live, work, and socialise together in a community. That’s not to say that university-wide clubs don’t exist – they often do – but college clubs and societies are usually your first port of call. For example, if you are a keen rower you might join your college squad and then try out for the university one, which is likely to be much more competitive. 

Which universities use the collegiate system?

The main ones in the UK are Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham. York also has colleges and could be considered collegiate, but the system is less important to university life there than in the other three universities.

How does it work?

This depends on the university you attend. 

Oxford has 39 colleges, which it describes as “independent and self-governing, and relate to the University in a federal system like that of the United States”. As an undergrad at Oxford you choose which college you apply for, and apply directly to that college, rather than to the University. The colleges are ultimately responsible for selecting and admitting their undergraduate students. As a postgraduate you apply to the University, and if you are accepted, are then selected by a college. 

At Oxford your teaching is organised by your college,but all lectures are university-wide. You will have small tutorials in your college. However, the University determines the content of courses and sets grades. 

Cambridge’s collegiate system is very similar to Oxford’s. Students live, eat, and have supervision in one of the 31 colleges, but their lecture teaching is university-wide. They describe their colleges as playing “a far more significant part in an undergraduate's life than a hall of residence in a non-collegiate university”. Like Oxford, colleges select and admit their students, but your degree is awarded from the University, not your college. 

Durham’s collegiate system is a little different to that of Oxford or Cambridge. Instead of applying to a college, you apply to Durham University, and the University considers your application. If they decide to make you an offer, you can then express a preference for a college, although there is no guarantee that you will be assigned there, as some colleges are very oversubscribed. 

Teaching at Durham is all centralised, so you’ll never be taught just in your college. However, colleges are just as important a part of university social life as they are at Oxbridge. 

What are the advantages of going to a collegiate university? 

Colleges are largely known for providing students with a very communal structure, almost like a family. If you enjoy being part of a close-knit community, the collegiate system could work for you. However, colleges aren’t the only way of achieving this - many students at non-collegiate universities find close friendships in university-wide societies and groups, too. 

Colleges are simply a different way of organising students. Many grow to have a strong identity with their college, but the system does not necessarily suit everyone. Most colleges will have some kind of reputation – the posh one, the radical one, the friendly one – so if you’re considering applying to a college, make sure you do your research and find the one that fits you best!

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Nicole Wootton-Cane
Written By
Nicole Wootton-Cane

Nicole lives in Manchester and is a Content Writer and Editor at Edvoy and journalist.


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