Harris Manchester is the only Oxford College that is dedicated to mature students; the youngest is 21 years of age, but there is no upper age limit. It is also Oxford's smallest college, with under one hundred undergraduate students in total. This however contributes to the friendliness of the place.
I had turned up to speak with the student runners, who are employed by each college during the interview process to assist the applicants in navigating their way around the place, ensuring they find their way to the appropriate interview room and have the correct extracts to read in advance. They also keep the Common Room supplied with fresh tea and coffee and provide a sympathetic and understanding presence to meet and greet the applicants each day.
Geraldine (first year Theology), Karen (first year Law) and Toby (final year PPE) were united in their enthusiasm for the role they had in the admissions process. Karen was particularly keen to support the current applicants. She secured her place at Harris Manchester in 2007 after re-applying - she could therefore draw upon the experience of both being disappointed and successful in the Oxford admissions process.
Geraldine had volunteered to help because, having had a career and returning to study, she felt it important that the candidates saw that Harris Manchester was a destination for not only twenty-somethings.
Toby had helped out every year whilst a student - Harris Manchester has a significant pool of PPE applicants each year, and he felt that it was important for there to be at least one runner that could represent this area to the candidates.
While a group of candidates waiting for Law and History interviews relaxed by playing a few frames of snooker, Geraldine commented that the age differences between students at Harris Manchester were not the issue that many applicants believed it would be. The strong motivation to study, combined with the focus at Oxford on attracting students who show enthusiasm and potential for their subject discipline, provides, in her view, a common and uniting bond that transcended any age differences. This was a view echoed by Karen, who felt that the peer support and the wealth of life experience amongst the undergraduates made for a vibrant and non-judgemental community. Meals at Harris Manchester emphasise this; a casual visitor would be hard-pressed to identify who are the tutors and who are the students.
The support and assistance that the runners offer appears to be appreciated by the applicants. Toby has, over the years he has helped out, built a number of friendships with people he has met during the interview period, who then, having received an offer, kept in touch with him in the remainder of the year prior to starting the course, whilst Geraldine had a clutch of e-mail addresses from this year's applicants who wanted to let her know the outcome of their interview.
Harris Manchester, like all of the Colleges, will typically invite interview candidates for two or three days - during the periods when candidates are not being assessed, the runners arrange visits to various parts of the city, or evening entertainment. Toby feels that this is a key part of the process, particularly for those candidates that are not familiar with Oxford. In particular he sees that many of the candidates who have returned to study, especially those currently at Further Education Colleges, have many misperceptions about the College and the University, and having forty eight hours to address these concerns and issues ensures that the applicants leave with a much greater appreciation and understanding of what Oxford is and is not.
As the group broke up to go and take the Law students to their interviews, I couldn't help but think that if Harris Manchester didn't exist, then it would have to be invented. It fulfills an important, if sometimes under-publicised, role in ensuring Oxford can attract and welcome applicants regardless of their background.