Oxford and Cambridge university colleges own property worth £3.5bn

News of bigger portfolio than Church of England comes after £21bn in total assets revealed

Oxford and Cambridge colleges collectively own more land than the Church of England and have a portfolio of properties across the UK worth £3.5bn, a Guardian investigation has found.

From a Scottish castle conquered by Robert the Bruce and the O2 arena in Greenwich to a betting shop in Brent, north-west London, the land and buildings owned by the universities’ colleges encompass ancient and modern possessions amounting to 51,000 hectares (126,000 acres) – an area more than four times the size of Manchester.

The Oxbridge holdings dwarf the 42,000 hectares owned across 41 dioceses by the Church of England, which is often said to be the UK’s largest private landowner.

The figures follow the revelation on Monday that estates, endowments, investments and other assets held by Oxford and Cambridge are collectively worth almost £21bn. The property details come from the most extensive survey of Oxbridge landholdings since 1873, through a combination of freedom of information requests, archival research and Land Registry records.

The property holdings of Oxbridge colleges are worth a combined £3.5bn, while the universities collectively hold property investments worth £863m. These figures do not take into account the value of many historic college sites, which are held at depreciated cost.

Land held by Oxford's All Souls College and Cambridge's Trinity College

The total size does not include unmeasured land held by several colleges “under ancient possession”, or the holdings of the universities, which could not give a full account of their land ownership but own at least 1,800 hectares, according to information available online.

The two major Cambridge landowners are St John’s and Trinity, which have 10,500 hectares worth £1.1bn and make up more than half of the 17,000 hectares owned by Cambridge colleges.

Trinity values its property investments at £850m, and in early January, the college sold a block of retail and residential space in Kensington High Street, central London, to Unitum Ltd, a Malta-based holding company, for £28m.

All Souls, Christ Church and Merton are Oxbridge’s biggest UK landowners, owning 14,000 of the 34,000 hectares held by Oxford colleges at a value of about £460m.

The oldest property owned by any college is Buittle Castle in Dumfries and Galloway, built in the 12th century and given to the Scottish nobleman John de Balliol, who, with his wife, Lady Dervorguilla, founded Balliol College, Oxford, in 1263.

Though the castle was captured by Robert the Bruce in the 14th century, it later reverted to the crown and is now back in the hands of Balliol College.

One of the most lucrative holdings is the O2 arena, originally known as the Millennium Dome, which Trinity College owns on a 999-year lease after buying it for £24m in 2009.

Trinity collects rent from Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates the concert arena, and over the past two years, the college has registered a profit of nearly £22m from the site.

Other well-known holdings include the site of the Top Gear test track, also owned by Trinity, and the Rose Bowl, the home of Hampshire cricket club, owned by Queen’s College, Oxford.

One of the most unlikely holdings belongs to St John’s College, the alma mater of the former prime minister Tony Blair, and Oxford’s wealthiest college. It is the landlord of Millwall’s training ground.

Less glamorous are swaths of rural farmland and woodland, which include an Isle of Wight farm bought by Queen’s College from Henry VIII, multiple Leeds industrial estates, several gastropubs across England, and the freeholds to more than 100 retail outlets and shops, including branches of Caffè Nero and HSBC.

The most concentrated commercial land ownership is in Brent, where All Souls College, one of Oxford’s wealthiest, owns more than 300 properties. The vast majority are residential houses, but they also include the freehold of a Ladbrokes betting shop.

The London borough had the highest proportion of housing benefit claims by private tenants in the country, according to research by the Financial Times in 2015.

Several colleges have received agricultural subsidies amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds, according to data from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

These include £117,000 in common agricultural policy subsidies paid in 2016 to Waterside farm in Berkshire, owned by St John’s College, Oxford, which sits on wealth of £582m.

The farm has received the taxpayer-funded grants, intended to conserve the environment by protecting wildlife and maintaining rural landscapes, despite West Berkshire council putting forward plans in 2016 to extract 200,000 tons of gravel over an 11-year period from the farm, located in the North Wessex Downs – an area of outstanding natural beauty.

The plans were met with widespread anger at the time from locals, including one who wrote a letter to the college vowing to “highlight the damage that St John’s College is intent on inflicting on the environment, the ecosystem, the neighbourhood, the town, and not least, the residents”.

Meanwhile, Cambridge, which holds net assets of £4.8bn, also received £180,000 in CAP subsidies in 2016 for its university farm. That is despite research from the university in 2015 describing such funding as “perverse” subsidies “promoting negative actions in both the long and short term by being bad for the environment and costly to the economy”.

An Oxford spokesperson said: “The central university’s strong balance sheet allows us to fund new initiatives for our students, staff and outstanding teaching and research.”

Oxford’s endowment includes 600 trusts with funds earmarked for specific purposes such as teaching posts, buildings and research. About £270m of the endowment supports student scholarships.

Cambridge declined to reply to requests for a response.


Xavier Greenwood and Richard Adams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Oxford and Cambridge university colleges hold £21bn in riches
Guardian study reveals how wealth of nearly 70 colleges is held in estates, endowments and artworks

Richard Adams and Xavier Greenwood

28, May, 2018 @7:00 PM

Article image
Universities strike blamed on vote by Oxbridge colleges
Move to cut pension scheme risk attributed to wealthiest institutions’ role in Universities UK survey

Richard Adams Education editor

21, Feb, 2018 @8:03 PM

Article image
Putting the brakes on the Oxford and Cambridge gravy train | Letters
Letters: Adult education professor John Holford, Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope, Colin Fraser and former Southampton Solent vice-chancellor Roger Brown respond to reports on the £21bn wealth of the two universities


30, May, 2018 @5:08 PM

Article image
Record numbers of state school pupils offered Oxford places
University also says more than 22% of admissions last year were from a BME background

Richard Adams Education editor

16, Jan, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Oxford and Cambridge to join £9,000 club on fees

Students whose family income is below £25,000 would pay £6,000 and receive a maintenance bursary of up to £1,625

Jessica Shepherd, education correspondent

09, Feb, 2011 @6:00 AM

Article image
Oxford and Cambridge must launch new colleges for disadvantaged young people | Andrew Adonis
The universities need to take drastic action to set aside places for pupils from under-represented schools, says Labour peer Andrew Adonis

Andrew Adonis

09, Jan, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
'Stormzy effect': record number of black Britons studying at Cambridge
Rise follows rapper’s high-profile backing of scholarships for black students at university

Richard Adams Education editor

10, Oct, 2019 @11:01 PM

Article image
Oxford and Cambridge need colleges exclusively for state school pupils | Lorna Finlayson
Lorna Finlayson: We’ve had women-only colleges. If Oxbridge is serious about tackling inequality, state school colleges are the logical next step

Lorna Finlayson

24, Nov, 2014 @1:30 PM

Article image
BBC rejects charge of elitist Oxbridge bias in University Challenge
Corporation denies breach of impartiality rules by ‘rigging’ show in favour of Oxford and Cambridge

Matthew Weaver

26, Mar, 2023 @9:44 AM

Article image
Government accused of 'total failure' to widen elite university access
Number of disadvantaged students at Russell Group institutions virtually unchanged since 2010

Jessica Elgot Political correspondent

14, Aug, 2018 @11:01 PM