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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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The Collegiate System at the University of Durham

— It was my privilege this past month to pay an extended visit to the University of Durham in the north of England and to get a grand tour of its entire college system. I made many new friends and came away with a host of useful ideas and information which I will be sharing bit by bit over the coming months. I’m very grateful to Prof. Tim Burt, Durham’s Dean of Colleges, for the hospitality he and his colleagues showed me.

Durham is the third great collegiate university in Britain, after Oxford and Cambridge. The university was founded in the 1830s with a single college, and today it is composed of fifteen colleges, with a sixteenth now under construction.

Unlike the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, which are legally independent corporations and which carry out many of the introductory teaching functions of the university, the Durham colleges are all bodies organized within the university and administered by their own college councils, much as an academic department or division might be. As creatures of the central university, the Durham colleges are a far better model for people at other institutions to look to, than are the independent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. I strongly urge university faculty and administrators interested in residential colleges to take a close look at Durham and see what structures there might be adapted for their own use.

Each of the Durham colleges has the standard configuration: a master or principal at the head, a senior tutor who is responsible for advising and welfare, a body of senior members (fellows and tutors), and a body of junior members (undergraduates and graduate students). A complete compliment of supporting facilities is present in each college: offices and reception space, a senior common room for the fellows and tutors, a junior common room–bar–game room combination, a library, and a spacious dining hall. One of the pleasures of touring the Durham colleges last month was seeing residential college buildings that were designed by people who understood the collegiate idea. The placement of offices, the landscaping of the courtyards, the configuration of the dining halls and common rooms—all these things bespoke a deep understanding of how architecture supports communal life.

I have put together a large collection of informal photos of many of the Durham residential colleges taken on my visit, and I invite you to browse them.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the Durham system as a whole was that in spite of its clear success (the students are devoted and enthusiastic, the rates of retention are equal to the top five universities in the entire United States)—in spite of its clear success, the Durham college system is actively engaged in a continual process of review under which best practices are shared across the colleges, inequities in space and facilities are being addressed, more support is being given to staff training, and so on. One of the generally recognized problems in the system is that the colleges have grown too large in recent years as the institution has grown, and the establishment of the new sixteenth college is being undertaken not to support further expansion, but to allow the existing colleges to “right-size” by distributing some of their present intake into the new college, without increasing the overall student population.

I think Durham is well placed to be one of the principal models for residential college life and administration around the world. I’ll be following up with more illustrations and examples in the months ahead.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021