Choosing an Oxbridge College

Let me tell you about some of the things that I know our students were attracted by when they chose Churchill. In this way I might assist those worrying about college choice by providing some pointers about what may be important. I don't promise to be entirely unbiased!

As one cohort of students are celebrating (or coming to terms with) which university they'll be heading off to this autumn, another cohort are considering their Year 12 results. For this latter group, decisions loom about UCAS forms. Which universities provide what they want in terms of course, cost, location and ambience? And for those who are contemplating Oxbridge as a destination, further decisions may be needed about which college to choose. (While Cambridge and Oxford advise students not to worry too much about choosing a college, on the sound grounds that the Colleges are far more similar than they are different, most applicants do still want to select one rather than simply making an 'open' application.)

These are tricky decisions, often inevitably based on limited information. As Master of one of the bigger, more heavily applied to and most academically successful Cambridge colleges (we were placed third in this year's Tompkins Table of undergraduate academic performance), let me tell you about some of the things that I know our students were attracted by when they chose Churchill. In this way I might assist those worrying about college choice by providing some pointers about what may be important. I don't promise to be entirely unbiased!

Churchill's undergraduate population is around 460, larger than many of the colleges. In the 2014 admissions round we accepted 140 students, compared with the smallest intake for a traditional undergraduate college of 66 at Peterhouse and 210 at Trinity, the largest. We also boast the largest site, with substantial playing fields as part of the site as opposed to fields located a mile or more away, and the largest dining hall. Figures to bear in mind if you think size matters.

We are a modern college - brutalist 1960s architecture rather than Tudor wood, but delightfully large, light rooms with much-admired windowsills for sitting on and staring out of the window - which commits to providing accommodation, often en suite and almost always on the main site, for three years of an undergraduate course. At a reasonable rent (a touch below midway in overall costs, with total transparency over what the rent covers), free wifi in all rooms and no additional fixed charges for food. These are all parameters that can vary substantially between different colleges. Oh yes, and alumni from 10 years back have told me how much the food has improved in recent years - I've certainly been enjoying it.

But these are hard facts that you can get from the College prospectus and which you can easily compare with other colleges through the site How to Choose a Cambridge College. What matters more is what I termed 'ambience' above. To some extent this is best appreciated by visiting - and there are plenty of open days to enable visits to be made: the next one at Churchill is on 25 September for all subjects. As I presided over my first Matriculation Dinner last year, the first year physicist sitting next to me confided that he had felt at home as soon as he'd walked into the College. We are, as I am constantly being told and it is self-evidently true, a friendly and unstuffy college. We even provide written notes to help the nervous work out which way to pass the port at our handful of really formal meals. No need to be embarrassed about such Cambridge trivia.

And, contrary to fairly widespread assumption, we are not full of public school kids, although we obviously value those we have: around 70% of our UK admissions come from the state sector, which is significantly above the Cambridge average, something I am very proud of. I wrote previously about how our admissions policies work, to ensure not only transparency but also that we look at every applicant in the round. Nevertheless we do have a problem I want to help solve: our gender make-up is significantly out of line with the typical close to 50:50 composition of most of the colleges. I want to see more girls apply so that we can admit more of them. Possibly because of our preponderance of students in STEM subjects (by statute 70% of our students will be in these Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects), the number of female applicants is persistently lower than we would like. This, despite the fact that we can proudly cite that the College was the very first in Cambridge to vote to admit women.

What happened along the road is not clear to me, but it seems to mean we are no longer seen as a college of first choice for enough of the UK's brightest young women. Would it be an inducement to say that we have a mainly female leadership team next year, with myself, the Bursar and the Senior Tutor all being women? And we have enough female Directors of Studies in Natural Sciences that they are able to make up a whole netball team to play our students ...

So, what more can I tell you that I have discovered in my first year here? Our student support is fantastic, with a College Nurse, a Counsellor and specialist study-skills Tutors to support the Tutorial team in making sure that all students thrive to the best of their ability. We have one of the lowest non-completion rates of any of the colleges and I am sure this can be directly attributed to the excellent pastoral care and individual attention students receive. If things start to unwind, perhaps because of family issues back home, or financial or health problems, there will be people there to offer support and advice.

For some the porters are the first point of contact (although for one or two that is admittedly because they've had too much to drink!), for others it will be their Tutor or their Director of Studies. People are well-equipped to deal with these sorts of issues sensitively and confidentially, only sharing information as is appropriate to ensure that the best support is provided. Hugely important for young folk away from home, perhaps for the first time for an extended period.

So, good food, good (and guaranteed) rooms, good support - what else? A bike repair-man on site several days a week is a plus; I've used him and he's excellent and quick. Good sports - our Boat Club excelled this year - good facilities for music, with a Music Centre on site; a large lecture theatre good for film screenings and plays. And a good location, particularly if you are a physical scientist. Maths, physics, computing, materials science and much of engineering are all within 10 minutes' walk or so (less by bike); admittedly the Biomedical Campus is a decent cycle ride (or a trip on the Uni bus service) away, but town-centre science and arts departments are also pretty close. The major development of North West Cambridge is all-but adjacent (and soon there'll be a new Sainsbury's there; Cambridge is woefully short of centre-of-town supermarkets) and indeed, whereas Churchill might once have seemed on the fringes of the city, Cambridge's centre of gravity is gradually moving west to encompass it.

In short, this is a fantastic place! Come and visit and be bowled over...

This post is cross posted from my personal blog.

See also the recent encouragement from Louise Mensch, encouraging students to 'give it a go'.

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