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Andrew Jardine, right, estates bursar at Worcester College, points to the place where Exeter College hopes to build at Oxford. (Jim Ross FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Andrew Jardine, right, estates bursar at Worcester College, points to the place where Exeter College hopes to build at Oxford. (Jim Ross FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Hallowed English colleges at odds over student housing Add to ...

They are among the oldest colleges at Oxford University, tracing their roots back roughly 700 years and boasting alumni such as authors J.R.R. Tolkien and Martin Amis, playwright Alan Bennett and media baron Rupert Murdoch.

But now the heads of Exeter College and Worcester College are locked in a dispute over an issue common to the most plebeian university: student housing.

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Exeter’s rector, Frances Cairncross, wants to put up a four-storey building to house 90 students, saying the college badly needs the extra accommodation. The proposed residence will be next to Worcester. And while it has been designed in a mock-Georgian style to look like the surrounding buildings, Worcester’s provost, Jonathan Bate, says he is “horrified” by the design. He argues it’s too tall, and will ruin his three-storey college’s views and overshadow an orchard of ancient fruit trees that has been part of Worcester’s extensive gardens since its founding in 1283 as Gloucester College.

The dispute is part of a growing housing shortage at Oxford, which has some of the highest home prices and rents in Britain outside London. The lack of housing, and vacant commercial space in general, means Oxford’s colleges have been forced to spread out across the city. For example, Exeter has expanded to seven different sites, most of which are far beyond the city centre where the college’s main building has been located since 1314.

Last week, Worcester’s Mr. Bate, a renowned expert on Shakespeare, urged the college’s students to rise up against the project, encouraging them in an e-mail to “help us to reduce the level of intrusiveness upon the college – something for which thousands of students in future generations will thank you.”

Exeter’s Ms. Cairncross, an economist, shot back at the e-mail appeal, saying colleges should not “go out of their way to deprive undergraduates of affordable accommodation.”

The project’s fate rests with the Oxford City Council and comments have been pouring in to a city website, nearly all opposing the building.

Exeter “has a moral duty to listen and to behave in accordance with ‘civilized’ values as regards further development,” wrote Robert Saxton, a professor of music at Worcester. “If this cannot be achieved in Oxford, where else could it be achieved?”

Added Worcester student James Price: “It is my fondest hope that these criticisms, and the many hundreds more I am confident you shall receive, will go some way toward blocking the construction of an overbearing, out of character, monstrosity of a building indefinitely.”

Ms. Cairncross isn’t backing down. “We have been on the same site since 1314,” she said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. She added that the college only has enough housing for all first-year students and some second and third years. “Everyone else lives in distant accommodation or private rentals.”

Edward Nickell, president of the Exeter Junior Common Room, similar to a student union, has been more direct. “Never mind a bloody college orchard, second- and third-year Exonians don’t even get rooms. Worcester has ducks and lakes, while at Exeter we’re bottom in Oxford for living-cost satisfaction,” he told the Oxford Student, the university’s student newspaper. “I’ll happily pay to have [Worcester’s orchard] flood-lit if it’s so important.”

Exeter has made some concessions to the design and tried to negotiate a resolution with Worcester. So far, no deal has been struck.

Mr. Bate said the building is still too high. “All we are asking for is a modification of the end part of their building in order to make its height more appropriate to its historic setting and to avoid overshadowing the rooms of our students,” he said in an e-mail to The Globe. And he had no apologies for urging students to block it. “I am very proud that so many of our students have chosen to exercise their democratic right to express an opinion via the public consultation process.”

He added that Worcester offered to sell some of its rooms to Exeter. However, Ms. Caincross said the space was “not suitable for our needs.”

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