Any visit to Oxford would be incomplete without visiting the world-famous Oxford University. Whilst this is not a difficult task to achieve it is worth understanding how best to go about doing this. Firstly, a common misconception is that the University is a single building or a single campus. There is an often-repeated story that a tourist once asked a student (obvious from his college robes and mortar board as he cycled past) “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to Oxford University?” “It’s all around you” came the rather unhelpful and arrogant reply. Whilst this nonchalant answer does little to help someone visiting Oxford this is actually the case and let’s explore why.

Photo of Oriel College Quad

Oriel College Quad

The University of Oxford is a collegiate university of 38 colleges that are spread across the city of Oxford. Each of these colleges is a self-governed institution in control of their own internal structure. If a student wishes to attend Oxford University, they will apply to the college itself rather than a central University. The student will undergo a series of interviews with their selected college. These interviews assess the student’s suitability, aptitude and attitude and often some unexpected questions are posed. There are various stories and perhaps urban myths regarding these interviews. One tale tells us that the interviewer simply told the student to “Impress me” and allegedly the student set fire to a paper upon the desk between them. Another tells us that during the 1960s a Professor had a habit of posing only one simple task by presenting half a house brick to a student along with the challenge “throw this brick through that window” – whilst pointing to a window with a view of one of Oxford’s omnipresent college quads below. The student challenged this request, but the professor was quite insistent, after some uncomfortable moments passed the student grabbed the brick and launched it through the window, with the glass smashing and landing on the quad below. The student was allegedly not admitted to the college and was hastily dismissed with the professor stating, “In Oxford, if we wish to throw a brick through a window, we open it first”. Whilst, these tales may have become embellished over time they are a good example as to how the University of Oxford is looking for a particular type of student with the ability to think both academically and laterally.

Throw this brick through that window

The University is supported by a number of public buildings that all colleges have access to. These include the ceremonial halls, the Bodleian Library and some of Oxford’s museums. The University also owns all of the research laboratories, classrooms, lecture theatres and a central examination hall, again all shared by the 38 colleges. It should be no more than a short bicycle ride from the student’s college to any of these facilities. There is an unwritten rule that no student should use a car whilst attending the University of Oxford, which is why there are approximately 22,000 students bringing 18,000 bicycles in to the city. This is a good thing if you have experienced either the congestion or the cost of parking in the city today. In fact, parking in Oxford is fast becoming a habit of only the rich or foolish and us mere mortals are forced out to one of the three Park and Ride locations. However, train services from London are regular and easy to access with the station being a short walk from the heart of the colleges and University public buildings.

Photo of the quad at Exeter College Oxford

Exeter College Quad

The students typically live within their colleges for their first year of attendance, with the better performing students getting the better rooms. Perhaps, an interesting and I would guess effective way of encouraging that the students attend their one-to-one tutoring sessions which also take place within the college rather than the central university facilities. Most Oxford colleges are built around a central quad, with accommodation, dining halls (think Harry Potter), a chapel, common rooms, library, administration offices and the dreaded College Porter lodges. The design of the quad was first seen at New College founded in 1379 by William of Wykeham – Bishop of Winchester. The thinking was that a quad shape, allowed for a single point of entry and exit that could be monitored by the Porters, students could be observed from almost every angle and that the quad shape was aesthetically pleasing to God if he happened to be looking down upon them. Most colleges have a highly manicured and unnaturally green grass quad, which is considered both bad luck and incredibly bad -mannered for anyone to walk across, with exceptions made for only those who hold a Master’s degree from the college in question.

Photo of New College Cloisters. The tree where Mad Eye Moody turned Draco Malfoy in to a ferret

New College Cloisters. The tree where Mad Eye Moody turned Draco Malfoy in to a ferret

Some colleges charge an entrance fee, with Christchurch College topping the entrance charge league at £10 in peak season following their visitor count dramatically increasing due to its Harry Potter filming locations. Other colleges have a smaller entrance fee with New College also offering Harry Potter connections and charging £5. Other colleges offer free admittance at differing times. However, it is also worth stating that opening times of colleges can be irregular or in fact can be closed on certain days to allow for student ceremonies or exams.

Entrance fees to some colleges can be up to £10 per adult

With the danger of initiating the reaction “you would say that” I would strongly state by far the best way of visiting the University of Oxford and understanding an Oxford student’s day-to-day life is with a tour guide. Yes, I run walking tours of Oxford and yes, the only way to see the University is on foot. But you do have the option to join one of my free walking tours. This will take you on a route around the University and will point out the college where Inspector Morse suffered his fatal heart attack, the college Roger Bannister (who broke the four-minute mile) attended and colleges of people you probably didn’t realise attended Oxford University. It will explain how the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge began and much more. Negotiating your way around the 38 colleges is challenging enough and getting to know which colleges are open when is a must if you wish to make the most of any visit to Oxford. You can stroll around Oxford on your own and appreciate the differing and beautiful architecture, but I can assure you a guided tour of Oxford will allow you to make far more of your time in the city. Finally, we also offer Private Tours should you wish to have something tailored to any specific requirements you may have.