Hanging Out in Oxford

Oxford, founded sometime during the ninth century, expanded during the Middle Ages as a center for learning—first for theology, then medicine, and then law. Over the centuries, the university has added more departments, and now you can study with the best and brightest in any field.

The small city of Oxford is basically one giant school. Every few feet, a new college springs up on you. The spires, ancient buildings, and courtyards make Oxford a beautiful place to stroll through. I spent three days there hosted by someone from Couchsurfing. Like my previous Couchsurfing experiences, this one was a lot of fun and the host was really welcoming. He hosts a new person every week and loves the experience. In a “small-world moment,” one of his friends is moving back to Thailand next week, and she lives right down the street from where I live.

Oxford was beautiful, despite it raining every day I was there. I explored the area during small gaps in the storms, but, since this is England, the rain quickly returned and I quickly turned inside. Not always back home though. Often I went exploring inside the colleges, shops, and museums.

While I don’t often take guided tours, I decided to do so here, and it was worth the price. They tell you a lot about the university that you might not otherwise learn. The Oxford system is unique. The university consists of 38 colleges, and each college is separate and in charge of itself. Each does its own hiring, firing, and admissions. The “university” is just an umbrella group run by the government that hands out the degrees. While you may go to New College or Exeter College, you still get an Oxford degree. There aren’t departments like in other universities around the world. Here, each college teaches all the subjects, though there is a separate science and medicine department. In graduate school, curriculums become more specialized.

When you apply to Oxford, you apply to a college. Each college accepts its own applicants, and since they all teach the same thing, a lot of it is a crap shoot and based on reputation.

Each week, students meet with a tutor who helps with their studies. These tutorials are the foundation of the Oxford system and comprise the bulk of a student’s work.

Another interesting fact about the Oxford system is that there aren’t exams. In most universities, when the term finishes, you take a final exam. At Oxford, you may have little tests here and there, but there is no real semester final. Your degree rests on a final examination you have at the end of your time at Oxford. One test. Sick, huh?

I thought the whole Oxford system was overly complex, but that’s the consequence of people starting their own colleges year after year over many centuries and then not wanting to integrate into one system.

Because of the weather, I didn’t get a chance to go punting in the river in Oxford. Punting is when you take a sort of gondola ride down the river while drinking, relaxing, and hoping you don’t fall in when it’s your turn to push that pole (punt). Disappointing.

Oxford is one hour away from London and makes for a good overnight trip out of the city, or, if you don’t mind being a little rushed, a day trip. There’s a lot of history here, and if you’re a Harry Potter fan, the college where Hogwarts was filmed is also here. There’s history, education, and cool architecture in this city.

And when you go, make sure you go punting for me!

Planning a trip to England? For more information, visit my page on backpacking Europe or my guide to England.