Hertford is not your typical Oxford college. Its buildings are beautiful and the Hertford Bridge is one of the most photographed icons in all of Oxford, but dig below the surface and it’s an entirely different story. There has been a college on the Hertford site since the 13th century, previous iterations being Hart Hall and Magdalen Hall. But after several dramatic events, including bankruptcy in 1816 and the collapse of our buildings fronting on to the Bodleian library, the location was refounded as Hertford College in 1874. The buildings were rebuilt by one of the great late Victorian architects, Sir Thomas Jackson, giving us our special look and feel.
Breaking new ground
It was in 1907 that Oxford’s first African American Rhodes scholar, Alain Leroy Locke, was admitted to Hertford after being turned down by five other colleges. Locke went onto become a renowned writer and philosopher, and was one of the primary figures behind the cultural movement known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. Martin Luther King acknowledged him as one the major influences on his thinking. His portrait now hangs in Hall, alongside our historic forebears.
In popular memory, the modern character of the college dates to the 1960s when a young academic, Neil Tanner, brought about a huge change in the admissions of students. Tanner, a Physics academic from Australia, spotted that Oxford was missing out on huge talent because the existing system made it difficult for boys (at that stage it was a male-only college) from working class families to apply. With the support of his colleagues, he suggested a new way, whereby Fellows made unconditional offers to students before they received their exam results, allowing them to bypass the existing system. Hertford became known as the college for working class boys and from that point onwards has had access and diversity at the heart of its academic and social mission.
In gender too, Hertford was at the forefront by being one of the first clutch of colleges to embrace co-education and co-residence in 1974. Prior to that, women could study at Oxford, but only at the women-only colleges. Among the first women to study at Hertford were Jacqui Smith, who went on the be the UK’s first female Home Secretary (and whose portrait also hangs in Hall), and Helen Alexander, who became CEO of The Economist group and the first female President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
Hertford has over 400 undergraduates and nearly 260 graduates – slightly higher than the Oxford average – with a broadly 50/50 gender split. Our mission statement declares that we believe in academic excellence framed by a commitment to fairness and opportunity, and we live out those values. We have 45 fellows, a third of them women, who range from the world’s leading experts in Shakespeare, the crusades and the philosopher David Hume to those at the forefront in thinking about astronomy, solving cancer, the development of artificial intelligence and the economics of auctions. All of them are as passionate and committed to their teaching as they are to their research. Our students will learn directly through their tutorials: the opportunity to pair up with another student and be taught directly face to face by some of the finest minds alive is one of Oxford’s great attractions, and its a system to which we are profoundly committed.
We feel just as strongly about ensuring that we recruit the best and brightest from whatever social or ethnic background – embodied by our pioneering record on admitting women and experimenting with offers to state school students. More than 70 per cent of our students were educated at state schools, and the mix of public and private gives the college a particularly friendly and dynamic character – along with a readiness to innovate and break new ground when the opportunity arises. So recently, celebrating that we were the first college along with four others to admit women, we rehung our hall with photographs of Hertford women for a year. We initiated Tri-Innovate, a competition for student innovators and aspiring entrepreneurs. In our ‘Hertford Conversations’, famous figures in our national life ranging from Hugh Grant to Ed Balls talk about their experiences with our Principal and students. The college teams with student societies, concerts, talks and sporting events, earning us our standing as Oxford’s “friendliest, funkiest” college.