Interesting and odd rules at the University of Oxford

5 minute read

Organisations across the world adopt unique and interesting historical practices that define their image and brand in wider society.

Arcane procedures and sometimes strange rules have endowed in particular institutions with a rich culture; and, in the case of learning institutions, with a long history of eccentricity. These are usually associated with exciting and odd rules. The University of Oxford is one of the high learning institutions that is very much characterised by exciting, yet unfamiliar, historical associations. So if you are being enrolled at the University of Oxford this coming autumn, below are a few fascinating examples of these rules and practices which most likely are unknown to you.

Hall attire

Among the interesting facts associated with the University of Oxford are the rigid hall rules unknown to most universities around the world, whereby students must wear formal attire on certain days and occasions when attending dining halls. While the norm is casual wear in other universities, Oxford has a rule obliging students to appear in formal attire for three meals in every week (mainly on a Thursday). The rule impresses by the fresh atmosphere it brings to the dining hall compared to the chaotic environment usually experienced in most universities’ dining halls across the world. This tradition has, in fact, been instrumental in instilling positive discipline among Oxford students.

Class times

The class time arrangement at Oxford is another interesting historical phenomenon. While in most universities classes are expected to start at 9.00am, and students are expected to be in class seated and prepared for the lecture by 9am, class times at the University of Oxford have been adjusted by an additional five minutes and start at 9.05 am. The rule derives from Oxford’s tradition of adjusting its time backward by five minutes and two seconds against the Greenwich Mean Time. The special class attendance time rule applied at Oxford has exposed students from elsewhere to new habits in managing their learning schedules. So, if you are starting at Oxford this autumn and run five minutes late, don’t worry, you will be right on time for when class starts!

Swearing rules

The University of Oxford also has an interesting tradition of requiring new students to swear an oath against lighting fires or bringing fire inside the world-famous Bodleian Library. This requirement is symptomatic of the value the University places on its cherished Bodleian Library. This ineluctable rule, applying only to the Bodleian, gives both international and home students an interest and a particular respect and admiration in learning the role that the Bodleian Library has played in shaping the modern University of Oxford.

Walking on the grass

Oxford has another hallowed rule prohibiting students from stepping on the grass in quadrangles. The green and lush lawns of the colleges you observe are due to the policy Oxford has maintained for centuries of allowing only professors to step on the grass. Everyone else is obliged to keep walking along the concrete path, even when talking to a professor who may be walking through the grass. The rule is indeed an odd one since it creates a certain one-upmanship between the professors and other teaching and supporting staff, as well as students. The free rein that Oxford professors enjoy wandering on the grass truly puts them ‘in a class of their own’!


Additionally, Oxford supports the unusual practice of confrontational or hostile debates between students seeking school office. Such debates, which can readily extend into personal calumnies and insults, are not for the faint-hearted, but their objective is to increase the resilience of the candidates for their future lives and careers. It is rather unusual for political debate in most institutions around the world to allow comments that are personal and sometimes quite offensive between candidates as it can be damaging or demeaning for sensitive candidates to undergo such aggression. But, for Oxford, there are no substitutes in the identification of robust and confident candidates and only those should seek school office.

All Souls

The enrolment requirement at All Souls College, which is one of the most prestigious colleges at Oxford, is probably the oddest rule applied at Oxford. All Souls College enrols a dozen students at a time using one of the strangest and most difficult entrance exams. Applicants are given a one-word essay topic which has one vague word. The enigmatic word is expected to generate a lengthy and well-written essay. Equally, All Souls College has a separate odd rule requiring the performance of the Mallard Song once in a century. The performance of Mallard songs is a bizarre occasion in which an individual dressed as Lord Mallard is carried sitting on a chair. It is unclear when the next Mallard performance is due but, if you happen to experience one, then do know that this is once in a century occasion!


Invented by Oxford students sometime in the 14th century, ‘pennying’ is a game of drinking and slipping a penny to someone else’s drink without them noticing. If you succeed in doing so, the person that has been ‘pennied’ must drink down to the bottom the drink they are holding, with or without swallowing the coin…

Town vs gown

Among the 39 colleges of the University of Oxford, there are many rivalries. A very famous one is that between Brasenose College and Lincoln College which dates back to the 13th century. During the known Town vs Gown riots that took place then, two Oxford students (one from Brasenose College and one from Lincoln College) were chased by angry town residents until they came to the door of Lincoln College, which only allowed in its own student, leaving the other one to be beaten by the town residents. In a sign of remorse, on Ascension Day each year, the students of Lincoln College open an inter-connecting door between the two colleges and serve beer to Brasenose College students.

Final-year conventions and the colour-coded carnations

The culture of wearing white ties during exams is another interesting habit at Oxford. The final-year students have a tendency of wearing white ties during their final-year exam as well as an optional carnation. For your first exam at Oxford, you can pin on your academic wear a white carnation and move onto a pink carnation during your interim exams; and finally pin on a red carnation during your final exam to also signify the freedom that is to come! On a similar theme, trashing of final exam papers is sometimes adopted as an act of defiance and another expression of liberation.

Despite their eccentricity, all these rules and traditions no doubt make the University of Oxford an even more special place to enjoy as a student or a visitor.