The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges & the Renewal of University Life  ‹›


Publication note: This brief description of the Cambridge Collegiate System was written in 1999 by Derek G.W. Ingram, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, and is reproduced here on the Collegiate Way website through his kind permission.

What is a Cambridge College?

To the outsider Cambridge and Oxford Universities are highly confusing organisations. There are (at the last count) some 31 Colleges in Cambridge, over 50 Faculties and Departments, and a host of peripheral Institutes, Research Centres and such like. Every one of these appears to be an independent organisation, going its own way in total disregard of all the others. Even residents of Cambridge University are often confused and some take several years to work out how everything fits together.

The Origins

To understand the situation one has to start right back at the origins of the University. The early Universities were no more than loosely associated groups of teachers, who individually took students for instruction. Towards the end of the thirteenth century Walter de Merton had the idea of forming a community, Merton College, in Oxford, dedicated to religion and learning within the University. He provided endowments to ensure that this group of scholars had the funds they needed to support their studies and teaching, and in return required them to conduct regular worship and to offer prayers for his soul. Over the course of the following century other wealthy men followed Merton’s example. Founding a College was considered to be a good way for a wealthy man to ensure a safe passage to Heaven. The status of the scholars—the College Fellows—was in many respects similar to that of monks. For example, they were not allowed to marry.

Early Development

As time passed Colleges grew in size and the academic side of their activities became more important. Initially studies concentrated on the classics, law and mathematics. Health being a major problem in those days, the study of medicine also became important.

Throughout the centuries the University slowly expanded, but no really revolutionary changes occurred until the beginnings of the nineteenth century. Up to that time the Colleges still dominated the University, almost all the teaching took place within the Colleges and most of it was in the form of direct discussions between a senior College member—a Fellow—and a small group of students.

The 19th Century

The industrial revolution and the growth of the sciences triggered revolutionary changes. Individual Colleges could not support the laboratories and large facilities now needed. Thus the central University organisation became more important and took on the responsible for providing lecture theatres, laboratories and such like. Teaching tended to shift from the Colleges to the central organisation.

The newer Universities which grew up during this time were set up from the start on this basis, but in the older Universities aspects of the Collegiate structure lingered on, and in Oxford and Cambridge much of this early structure still survives.

The Present Day

At the present time Cambridge University can be pictured as an association of independent Colleges, each of which enrols students, and then sub-contracts to the Central University Departments to provide teaching for its students. The old College based teaching lingers on in the form of supervisions. Each College student normally receives one or two hours of personal teaching each week from a senior member of his own College. Many of the Senior Members of a College—the Fellows—are also lecturers in the various University Faculties and so they have two employers and two sets of responsibilities, one to their Department and the other to their College.

One of the great benefits of the Collegiate system is that academics in different disciplines meet one another within the small academic communities of their Colleges, so that within Cambridge and Oxford there is much better communication between specialists in different fields than is found elsewhere. In a similar way it is also much easier for senior members of the University become acquainted with their students within a comparatively small College organisation. For example, within Caius it is rare to have more than twenty or thirty students in a particular field, along with a couple of Fellows. They tend to form a tight little group and over the three years of their undergraduate course the students get to know the Fellows of their own College very well.

Dinner in Hall

One of the oldest traditions in a College is that the Senior Members (the Fellows) and the students dine together each evening. In Caius this goes back to the origins of the College in the 15th century. In the very earliest times it was probably merely a tradition of the teachers and their students sitting down together in the dining room (hall) and discussing academic topics during the meal. As time passed and the Colleges grew in size the arrangements became more elaborate. Today we follow a pattern which was established about 200 years ago.

The students assemble in the Hall and the Fellows separately gather in the Combination Room. When dinner is ready the Fellows are summoned by the College Butler and walk up to Hall in procession led by the Senior Fellow present, who will preside at dinner. He/she is followed by any Fellows who have guests and their guests, and then by the remaining Fellows. As they enter the Hall the students stand up. The Fellows and their guests go to the top table (the High Table) and stand there facing the students. One student, normally a Scholar, is standing near the head of the High Table ready to say the grace. A gong is struck and he/she then recites the grace. Everyone then sits down and the meal starts.

Scholars: College Scholarships are awarded to students who gain First Class Honours in any of their Tripos examinations. These students then have the rank of Scholars. Awards are initially made for one year, but may be renewed for a second year if the Scholar’s work and progress during the first year are satisfactory. Awards which are won at the end of the second year are called Senior Scholarships. Awards won in the final examinations (normally at the end of the third year) are called Honorary Senior Scholarships. Scholars receive an award (currently between £100 and £200), and have first choice of the available undergraduate accommodation (i.e. they get the best rooms!). They also have the duty of saying the grace in Hall.

The grace said in Caius is:

Benedic, Domine, nobis et donis tuis quae ex largitate tua sumus sumpturi; et concede ut, ab iis salubriter enutriti, tibi debitum obsequium praestare valeamus, per Jesum Christum dominum nostrum; mensae caelestis nos participes facias, Rex aeternae gloria.

Which, in English, is:

Bless, O Lord, both us and these Thy gifts, which, of Thy bounty, we are about to receive; and grant that being by them wholesomely fed, we may be able to render that worship which is Thy due, through Jesus Christ our Lord; at whose celestial table may we be partakers, O King of everlasting glory.

Note: where the grace is recited by a non-Christian Scholar, it may be ended at ‘…praestare valeamus.

Recordings of the Grace

The primary recording is Grace1a.wav which is about 790K in size and offers the best available sound quality. Alternatively you may listen to Grace1b.wav which is 390K in size and so will download more quickly, but may offer somewhat poorer sound quality. These recordings are Copyright ©1999 Gonville and Caius College.

© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021