Few institutions can match the global prestige of Oxford University. Just look at the gifts lavished on it, like offerings brought to some mighty emperor of the ancient world. There’s the Saïd Business School, controversially funded with £50 million from Wafic Saïd, who helped to broker the British-Saudi arms deal. There’s the carbuncular Blavatnik School of Government, criticised by Russian dissidents for how the funder made his millions. There’s the new student housing at St Peter’s College, partly paid for with a donation whose original source was the mid-20th-century fascist demagogue Oswald Mosley. Yes, people do sometimes ask whether there’s any cash the university won’t accept.
And now they have an answer. The one thing you can’t do with your money in Oxford is keep alive a small struggling Catholic college. Try to do that, and every door will slam in your face.
In May, Oxford’s officials put on grave expressions and announced that St Benet’s Hall, an institution with about 130 students which was described by the students’ union as ‘probably the friendliest place in Oxford’, would be closing its doors. The reason, according to the university’s statement, was the ‘ongoing financial uncertainty’. For the academics and administrators who lost their jobs, and for the wider community, it was a devastating blow. There was something unique about St Benet’s: its quietly Christian identity and familial atmosphere – unlike other colleges, there was no High Table for fellows, but a single table where everyone sat together – felt to many academics like the last link with old Oxford.
‘The closure of the hall feels akin to losing a friend,’ the Tory MP Alexander Stafford, who went to St Benet’s, tells me. ‘It nourished me, forming who I am as a person. It is hard to believe that the Hall will no longer be there waiting for me – it was a truly wonderful place.’