The University of Toronto’s Student Newspaper Since 1880

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Opinion: U of T’s colleges should all be financially independent

Oxford and Cambridgeʼs colleges can demonstrate how our college system can improve
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email
DONNA LIU/THE VARSITY
DONNA LIU/THE VARSITY

For the over 27,000 Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) students at U of T, college membership can have significant influence on admissions, academics, financial support, scholarships, and residence. The issue of potential inequality in student experiences at different colleges — differences in student funding, scholarships, and quality of support — is also difficult to contextualize, especially since U of T’s college system is an anomaly among North American universities.

Although the collegiate university concept first came to prominence with the medieval University of Paris, the contemporary popularity that gave rise to the U of T system is almost entirely due to two of the most famous examples of the model: the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in the UK, together known under the portmanteau of ‘Oxbridge.’

In the UK, the debate about college inequality has already been going on for some time. In the words of a student columnist for Cambridge’s Varsity student newspaper, the differences range “from where you sleep, eat, and attend tutor meetings to the amount of academic or financial support you can receive, the ease of your access to health resources, the proportion of your student loan you must lose to rent, and even how much of the reading list you can find in the college library.” 

Aside from the fact that all libraries at U of T are open to students regardless of college affiliation, that statement could have easily been run in The Varsity without an eye being batted.

The increasing discussion about combatting reputations of privilege and elitism at prestigious colleges such as Christ Church College, Oxford and St. John’s College, Cambridge — where formals are still held every weekday evening — also bears striking resemblance to similar reflections on U of T’s Trinity College.

Although there are many more significant factors that determine a college’s culture and character than money, wealth inevitably influences students’ college experience. Better-endowed colleges tend to provide their students with better resources, support, and opportunities. On the whole, Oxbridge colleges are famously well-funded, and recent reports have noted that the Oxford and Cambridge colleges’ combined wealth is greater than that of their respective universities.

U of T’s colleges are not doing all that bad by that measure, either. The combined wealth of the seven independent colleges of U of T — Trinity, Victoria, St. Michael’s, Regis, Wycliffe, Knox, and Massey — is well over $1 billion.

One might have noticed there has been no mention so far of the finances for U of T’s four constituent colleges. In contrast to the federated U of T colleges, which are independent financial entities managing their own portfolios of assets, the constituent colleges — University College, Innis College, Woodsworth College, and New College — are not independent financial institutions. 

Even if smaller Oxbridge colleges struggled to provide their students with all of the resources of their wealthiest counterparts, their financial independence would allow them at least a fighting chance and the ability to continue improving their situation over time. Though already wealthy, Magdalen College, Oxford just confirmed an investment that will double the endowment fund available to its students.

U of T officially acknowledges the role colleges serve as a smaller community unit within the overwhelming size of the university as a whole. The college system gives students a place in the generalized massive student body and allows for the interests of the individual to be better acknowledged at a local level. While the university has to prioritize its resources on a variety of matters, such as research, philanthropy, and maintenance, a far greater portion of a college’s attention can be put toward its students.

The fact that the constituent colleges, which together represent more than half of FAS undergraduates, are unable to do more than trying to convince U of T to set aside a greater portion of the budget for them defeats the very purpose of having a collegiate system. If anything, the hybrid nature of U of T’s colleges has served as a lengthy comparative experiment whose results are quite clear: financially independent colleges do better.

It may be time for U of T to recognize that merely imitating Oxbridge’s names and styles does not make for a successful college model. Perhaps the best thing U of T can do for its constituent colleges is to set up some initial endowments and finally set them free to secure an independent and distinct place at U of T and in the wider community.

Daniel Yihan Mao is a first-year economics student at Victoria College.