Atik, Hassan’s, the Isis, Radcam, Bop, Bridge, another formal, the Bodleian. Before you know it, another term has finished. Yet looking back, all you can recall is one all-encompassing blur, as you realise that everything you did merges into one colourful fazed memory. Once again you realise Oxford time runs differently. From the first second, quite literally referring to that initial subject dinner and the dreaded essay in week zero, you find yourself immersed in a whirlwind of library sessions, formal events and late nights— some loving and others hating it. This fast life has been subjected to a lot of criticism lately, with many students questioning whether it is really worth it. Most of the discussion concerning the length of Oxford terms focuses on the welfare vs academic progress of students with, quite frankly, no reference to how these short terms established themselves in the first place or their initial purpose, supposing that there ever was one. It remains a mystery how the fast-paced culture became intrinsically linked to Oxford undergraduate study and why senior members are so reluctant to even consider changing term times. Indeed, it is puzzling how short terms with insanely high workloads have embedded themselves into Oxford life as the status quo, when, in all sincerity, the emotional rollercoaster you go through whilst studying here can under no circumstances be deemed ‘normal’. Consequently, the following question remains: how did this fast-paced life establish itself?

The Beginnings

As with all else at Oxford, tradition is everything. These traditions date back to the 8th century when the first priory, that of St Frideswide, was established in Oxford and a long standing practice of religious scholarship commenced in the city. In fact, St Frideswide has remained the University’s patroness until this very day. In 1167, Oxford experienced a boost in enrolment, when for political reasons, Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. Receiving many scholars who would have otherwise proceeded to France, the University’s numbers started to rise rapidly. Since a large majority of students had previously come from Paris, Oxford was consequently modelled on the principles of this very university. In fact, the first chancellor insisted on the necessity of conforming to the curriculum regulations enforced at the University of Paris and received from the Pope a verdict that no one should teach any faculty unless he had been examined in secundum morem Parisiensem. At this point, you might be finding the idea that Britain’s greatest university originated from the French is almost too much to bear. However, such it would seem is life.

With its curriculum being based on that of Paris’ University, Oxford embraced the faculties of Theology, Canon and Civil Law, and the Arts. It remains unclear whether Oxford also adapted term times and vacations from the Parisian model. However, an adaptation of this kind was unnecessary; the notion of terms was nonexistent at this point and the University of Paris, similar to all medieval universities, solely granted holidays on the mandatory dates prescribed by the Church. Thus, while they were not consciously adapted from Paris, the nature of the vacations at Oxford would have still largely looked the same, as both France and England were Catholic at this time. Remarkably, from here, Paris and Oxford developed to operate on two distinct term systems.

During the Middle Ages, one of the ways through which the Church prevented rebellions was by enforcing frequent mandatory holidays. These holidays revolved around feast days and ancient agricultural celebrations. As the grandest feasts were celebrated during the dreariest time of the year, the two-week period from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Day developed into the longest vacation. Lent and Easter were also major events. These medieval holidays have persisted until the present day, and lay the preliminary foundations for the long Christmas and Easter Break we are accustomed to not only at Oxford but at most European schools and universities.

While religious feasts were offered as the only holidays during the early stages of the University, a term system would have been developed towards the end of the Middle Ages. This term system  surprisingly has its origins in the ‘town v gown’ battles, in which locals and students maimed and killed one another. Infamously, one such battle led to an exodus of students from Oxford who founded Cambridge. Moreover, it was one of these “town v gown” battles that forced Oxford to strengthen and solidify its power, laying the fundamental groundwork that was a prelude to its form as an institution in the 21st century.

Frankly put, Oxford owes its success to a murder. In 1214, two students suspected of murdering a local were hanged. While it created one of the great ‘town v gown’ battles of history, it also galvanised the University to organise itself. It procured a Papal Bull in 1218 and was effectively recognised as a cohesive and separate entity for the first time. Significantly, the position of Chancellor was created— first occupied by Robert Grosseteste, who, more than any other person, could claim the title of the ‘founder’ of the University of Oxford.

The University as an Institution is Solidified

Grosseteste utilised his connections with both Crown and Church to strengthen and consolidate the position of the University at the centre of town, until the University Chancellor held absolute power over both University and town. The foundation of the immunity of University members from lay courts was initiated, an exemption which still exists in some form to the present day. Moreover, the obligation of money payments and the feeding of poor scholars was implemented, a liability which was transferred from the Church to the Crown during the Reformation. In fact, the University still receives a yearly sum ‘for a poor scholar’ from the Paymaster General. Following the 14th century, the University even gained the assizes of bread and ale; this essentially meant they controlled Oxford’s trade. Altogether, over the next couple of hundred years, the town became ‘indentured’ to the University, which in turn allowed the University to flourish in a way which was unsurpassable by potential rivals. Most notably, this instigated the University to hold official courts. Thus, not only did the University hold influential economic power, but over the next couple of centuries the senior body became increasingly involved with the law at Oxford, which culminated with the University ultimately holding extensive jurisdiction. 

From the 13th century onwards, local courts were ordered by the King to meet four times a year to hold Courts of Quarter Sessions. As the King was Catholic at this time, these sessions were to be held around well-known feast days of that time: Easter, Trinity, Michaelmas, and Epiphany. Due to the inextricable intertwinement between town and University, the University schedule began to slowly but steadily revolve around these feast days. 

Therefore, Oxford developed to operate on a quarterly system. These four terms still bear resemblances to the contemporary Oxford terms: Michaelmas stayed Michaelmas, Epiphany was renamed to Hilary, and Easter was renamed to Trinity, while the original Trinity was dropped so that Oxford could offer a long summer break. This latter adjustment was implemented because during the 20th century Oxford was pressured to at least partially adhere to the modern academic calendar. First, they had to enable a school-to-university transition for future students. Secondly, once it was clear that the semester system was predominating, many internship programs were built around the semester system;  it would be unbeneficial for Oxford terms to span the summer. This also answers the question of why Oxford and Cambridge name their last two terms differently. Similarly to Oxford, Cambridge renamed Epiphany, however, it was renamed to Lent instead of Hilary. As for the last term, Cambridge too dropped the original Trinity term but decided to keep the Easter term as Easter, and not rename it to Trinity as Oxford did.

Prevailment of Terms in the Modern Era Despite Drastic Reformations

Oxford (and Cambridge) stood alone through the Middle Ages, with only the beginning of the 1830s witnessing the rise of new universities. This together with parliamentary changes in the 18th century forced Oxford to drastically reform and modernise. These changes are presented by historians “as the cases of government being forced to step in to remedy an old-fashioned, conservative institution which had failed to reform itself.” While the institutional structures, teaching methods, and the examination system, which saw rise in the nineteenth century, were standardised and modernised, these changes were all tightly structured around the quarter system; the efficiency of the four terms remained unquestioned. However,  reform was instigated by the commissioners due to the faculty viewing university reform as “a potential means by which to exercise a closer supervision over the activities of undergraduates and to inculcate particular intellectual and moral values”. In particular, the senior body hoped through the abolition of religious tests and the broadening of the syllabus to encourage a more diverse student body less susceptible to control by one particular faction. Therefore, the quarter system must have not curtailed the senior body’s control over the undergraduate body, as it was not even considered for modification.

As previously demonstrated, while the drastic reforms Oxford was subjected to during the 18th and 19th centuries changed almost every aspect of student life, one thing it did not change was the term system, as instead, all fundamental changes were organised around it. Thus, if the timing of Oxford terms were to be even slightly adjusted as of today, everything, virtually everything would have to be changed. For over two hundred years Summer eights have proceeded in fifth week of Trinity Term. Imagine the outcry of the Rowers at even attempting to change this pivotal and highly anticipated date. Radical change seems as though it will be shelved for the next few years, considering Oxford quite recently enacted a revolutionary change, wherein as of 2016, all male colleges and halls ceased to exist. What was even more shocking, is that from 2012, female students were for the first time allowed to wear trousers as part of their sub-fusc! Following these progressive changes it seems highly unlikely Oxford will initiate further revolutionary reforms in the near future (but you never know).

Moreover, towards the end of the 18th century, senior members feared that the undergraduate body might be infiltrated by revolutionary ideas from France and rebel against senior authority. Consequently, Oxford embarked on a defensive policy of change in the wake of the French Revolution, wherein the reforms were designed to act “as prophylactic, as alternative to revolution.” Nevertheless, Oxford terms were still not viewed as necessitating alterations, which once more portrays that, already by the 18th century, the quarter system was deeply embedded into Oxford life. Moreover, terms did not require changing, as the senior body was evidently not frightened their nature would act as a catalyst for a student rebellion. The same cannot be said with such certainty about the contemporary junior body.

Many students are demanding for terms to be lengthened, claiming Oxford’s academic expectations cannot be realistically realised within the current course structure. Claims such as students cracking under the intense pressure they are subjected to or experiencing burnouts are not unfamiliar. Arguably, if terms were lengthened, students would be able to work more effectively, yet, such an intense system inevitably also teaches students how to set priorities. On the other hand, some people work best under pressure and consequently thrive in this environment. Palpably, Oxford’s modern academic calendar, whose origins can be traced to the historic English law court, is not made for everyone but is not necessarily bad in itself. 

Why Tradition Will Probably Persist

While it is challenging, and at times every last ounce of hope to meet the deadline has been vanquished, at the end of the day the trimester system seems not to be going anywhere; indeed, it seems to simply work. Yet even if it did require fixing from an undergraduate’s point of view, the fellows, who decide on such pivotal changes, would decide against it. This is because the primary interest of the SCR members is their own research and supervising that of MCR members. Thus, it would be illogical for them to compromise the system (short terms vs long holidays) which allows them to devote most of their time to ‘unparalleled’ research. Never mind that at this point the college bursars have not yet been mentioned, who would be infuriated at the idea of reducing conference season by so much as a day! Atik, Hassan’s, the Isis, Radcam, Bop, Bridge, another formal, the Bodleian. The whirlwind has started to make you dizzy, but you still don’t stop. You really ought to go home, but that’s when 8th week hits. Instead of being thankful for the near salvation, you become immersed in that inevitable, momentary euphoria, getting high on those last submissions. You tell yourself, this is the Oxford life, and realise that if terms were lengthened this fast life would regretfully evanesce. Drunk on this notion, you convince yourself that next term will be different. Why? Because all reading will be finished before 0th week and because no matter how much you complain and the many essay crises you endure, you cannot leave Oxford. And ultimately, next term, you can’t wait to come back for more.