Your guide to the collegiate system in the UK

By Nicole Wootton-Cane• Last updated: Oct 31, 2023
Your guide to the collegiate system in the UK
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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 where they stay for the rest of their time. These colleges are a part of universities, not separate teaching institutions. These colleges are generally communal and home to their 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 will likely be much more competitive. 

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Which universities have the collegiate system?

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

How does it work?

The working of several collegiate systems 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 will choose which college to apply to directly, rather than 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, you will be chosen by a college. 

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

Cambridge’s collegiate system is very similar to Oxford’s. Students live, eat, and supervise 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 slightly different from that of Oxford or Cambridge. Instead of applying to a college, you use Durham University, which 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 centralised, so you’ll never be prepared just in your college. However, colleges are just as important a part of university social life as at Oxbridge. 

What are the advantages of going to a collegiate university? 

Colleges are primarily known for providing students with a communal structure, almost like a family. The collegiate system could work for you if you enjoy being part of a close-knit community. 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. 

Collegiate universities have simply a different way of organising students. Many grow to have a strong identity with their college, but the system does not 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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