Student at desk in Balliol Library (photo: Stuart Bebb)
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Academic Reasons to Choose Balliol

Expert teaching

Tutorial Fellows lead the teaching for each course, and the College has at least two Tutorial Fellows even in small subjects and an unusually large number of Tutorial Fellows in others — in Physics, for example, Balliol is one of only a handful of colleges to have four full-time Tutorial Fellows. Some subjects have the benefit of research Fellows who participate in teaching too. Also teaching you if you come to Balliol will be College Lecturers, who add greatly to the range and richness of the instruction you will experience, and can be at an early stage of an academic career or established post-holders in departments or colleges, including Balliol itself. Engaged in their own learning or research as well as being tutors, all are experts in their field. Balliol is also one of only a few colleges who have clinicians teaching Medicine undergraduates (most lack the advantage of that expertise). 

Much of your teaching at Balliol will be in tutorials: weekly meetings with a tutor and usually one or two other students. A long-standing Oxford tradition, the tutorial system is said to have been ‘brought to perfection at Balliol’* in the 19th century. You can get an idea of how tutorials at Balliol work and the different approaches Balliol tutors take according to the subject by watching our video about undergraduate study at Balliol.

Stimulating academic environment

The tutorial system nurtures a unique relationship between tutors and students that is praised by Balliol students, who often remember it for life. ‘The tutors here are incredible at their jobs: they push you to be … much better [and] have always been available to me when I’ve found some parts harder than others,’ said one alumnus. ‘An unforgettable part of my time at Balliol’, was how an alumna recalled a tutor who ‘inspired me, made me smile, shaped me’; for another old member, a tutor who ‘combined outstanding scholarship with great personal warmth and kindness’ left ‘an indelible memory’.

Societies for many subjects – including maths, engineering, medicine, law – contribute to the stimulating academic environment at Balliol. Including Senior and Junior Members of College, and sometimes alumni, societies provide opportunities for intellectual exchange, mutual support, social events and dinners, guest speakers – even, in one case, ‘everybody singing amazing maths-inspired songs. It’s unique things like this that make Balliol such a great place to be a student’. 

Academic support

Balliol Library plays a key part in students’ academic experience. It is richly stocked in all subjects; it has one of the best Classics collections in Oxford and its own outstanding Law Library; its holdings in History are second to none. The two inspiring medieval reading rooms are open 24/7, and friendly, professional librarians are on hand 95, Monday-Friday.

The Library also offers help with study skills. As an undergraduate you will have a Personal Tutor, whose role is to provide general help, support and advice. Trained study advisers are also part of the academic support available.

Choice of joint degrees

A special feature of Balliol’s undergraduate offer is its concentration of joint schools, especially with Philosophy – Physics and Philosophy being a Balliol-specific concentration – but also in well-known and established degrees such as History and Politics or History and English, and other combinations with Classics, Computer Science, Maths, and Modern Languages.

Historic academic foundations

Mathematical sciences, one of the largest subject groups at Balliol, have been studied ever since the foundation of the College in 1263. Balliol’s outstanding reputation for history teaching and research, although not quite so old, is longstanding. The College’s distinguished tradition in chemistry goes back more than 150 years: at that time it even had its own laboratory, opened in 1853.

Balliol has a long track-record of innovation. It was one of the first Oxford colleges to appoint a Fellow in English when the Honours School was established; one of the first three to have a Tutorial Fellow in Computer Science; one of the founding colleges for Classical Archaeology and Ancient History. Famously it was the birthplace of the degree of PPE in the 1920s, and nowadays Balliol PPE is still distinctive, as the course page explains.

Academic achievement

Balliol’s tradition of academic excellence can be seen in its Finals results: in the years 20172021, an average of 42 per cent of undergraduates achieved Firsts. Each year many pursue postgraduate studies at Oxford and other universities, 20 or so each year (about a fifth of all finalists) choosing to stay at Balliol.

Academic careers

Balliol’s academic reputation is rooted in the achievements of many individuals from the past, among them mathematician James Stirling, historian Christopher Hill, Nobel Prize winners Sir Cyril Hinshelwood (Chemistry) and Oliver Smithies (Medicine); others are listed here

Today Balliol’s intellectual weight is represented not just by its Senior Members and Emeritus Fellows but by those alumni (postgraduates and undergraduates) who pursue academic careers, many of whom become experts and leaders in their field.

Of those who gained undergraduate degrees at Balliol, President of the Supreme Court Lord Reed, Professor of Chemical Biology Hagan Bayley, bioinformatician Ewan Birney, Oxford’s Savilian Professor of Geometry Frances Kirwan, Balliol Politics Fellow Sudhir Hazareesingh, literary critic and scholar Christopher Ricks, surgeon, writer, and public health researcher Atul Gawande, economist Anusha Chari, zoologist Richard Dawkins, classicist Emily Wilson, Professor of Social Policy Kitty Stewart and Professor of Film & Film Culture Claire Monk are but a few examples. Countless other Balliol undergraduates in all sorts of subjects have gone on to become Fellows of prestigious academic institutions and hold senior university positions around the world. 

More examples of Balliol academics past and present in each subject are on the individual course pages. Examples of the work and achievements of current Fellows, postgraduates and alumni are featured in our news stories and publications.

* ‘The teaching of the undergraduate … by his Tutor or Supervisor gives to the education at Oxford and Cambridge something scarcely to be got elsewhere in such full measure. The rudiments of the system existed in the worst days of “old corruption”, increased with the growing efficiency of the Colleges in the early nineteenth century, and were brought to perfection in Balliol by the example and influence of Jowett.’ Royal Commission on Oxford and Cambridge Universities, 1922, quoted in David Palfreyman (ed.), The Oxford Tutorial: ‘Thanks, you taught me how to think’, OxCHEPS, 2002