Once gone, St Benet’s Hall will be impossible to replace, writes alumnus Damian Collins MP
Like all current and former students of St Benet’s Hall I was distressed to read the statement from the Master this week that the Hall may no longer hold a licence from the University of Oxford beyond the current academic year. This would bring to an end the 125-year history of St Benet’s as the home of the Benedictine community in Oxford, and as a centre for Catholic education. I am proud to have been part of that tradition in my three years as an undergraduate in the mid 1990s. It was then a smaller institution, based in one building and only accepting male students. I was delighted though to have seen St Benet’s expand over the last few years, acquire new buildings and accept women students, a welcome and necessary reform.
Oxford has always evolved. The building that was the history faculty library when I was an undergraduate had previously been a centre for people studying to join the India civil service of the British Raj and is now home to the Oxford Martin School which works across different academic disciplines to find innovative solutions to the problems of the 21st century. St Benet’s Hall was founded in the nineteenth century by Ampleforth Abbey but was merely a return to Oxford by the Benedictines, whose institutions seven hundred years before had led to the founding of colleges like St. John’s, Trinity and Worcester. The loss of St Benet’s would not be the end of Catholic education at Oxford, but it would represent the demise of a unique and admired institution. Whilst the life of this great University has always been built on change, its strength has also been the great diversity of its people and institutions.
When I was a student at St Benet’s many academics from other colleges, in particular the great historian of medieval chivalry, Maurice Keen, felt that the Hall was almost the last representation of old Oxford. The hierarchy between Master and students was kept to a minimum; the Master in my time was the distinguished theologian Henry Wansbrough who despite being in his sixties would go rollerblading most days in the University Parks. There was no ‘high table’ and we took meals together around a single long table in the refectory. On guest nights, an undergraduate might find themselves, as I once did, chatting to the Chancellor of the University, then Roy Jenkins, or some other honoured guest. The small size of the hall was a perfect cloister for some, but for others, including myself, it provided an excuse to also engage with the wider university. St Benet’s has produced Oxford Blues, leaders of university political associations, winners of top academic prizes and even in 1994 a team on the BBC’s University Challenge. I was the first graduate of St Benet’s to be elected to the House of Commons but was pleased to be joined at the last election by Alex Stafford, the new MP for Rotherham.
The University of Oxford has a responsibility to ensure all colleges and permanent private halls are sustainable, but in exercising their powers I hope due consideration is given to the significance of the loss of St Benet’s Hall, and how once gone it would be impossible to replace. Like many others, I am particularly concerned by how rapidly the financial situation at St Benet’s appears to have deteriorated, and how swift has been the response of the University. It is reassuring to know that all St Benet’s students will be accommodated in other colleges should it close, but I’m sure they would much rather it doesn’t come to this. However, beyond the University authorities, the call also needs to go out to the wider Catholic community, and particularly those who have known and benefited from what St Benet’s has to offer. The loss of the Hall would represent the demise of a cherished Catholic educational institution, and in our own way we should do all that we can to try and save it.
Damian Collins has been the MP for Folkestone and Hythe since 2010 and was an undergraduate at St Benet’s Hall from 1993 to 1996.
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