Oxford University – let’s make nice

by Stephen Tall on January 27, 2005

If you put the terms ‘Oxford University’ and ‘whipping boy’ into the Google search engine it returns 656 possible websites. (Well, 657 now.) This compares with an incidence of 521 hits for Harvard and 410 for Cambridge, while Keele ‘Googlewhacks’ in with a solitary return. What is it about Oxford that rubs so many people up the wrong way?

It’s not simply that the University is not everyone’s cup of tea: ‘Very nice sort of place, Oxford, I should think,’ remarked George Bernard Shaw, ‘for people that like that sort of place.’

When the British Chancellor lambasted Magdalen College for turning down Laura Spence, a star pupil from a Newcastle comprehensive, he had made a careful calculation of the Old Labour ‘Brownie points’ his tongue-lashing would earn. Of course, his attack was loathsomely self-serving and hypocritical, as baseless as it was spineless: half of the eight students admitted by Magdalen to study medicine that year came from state schools. But he knew what he was doing.

It’s a depressingly bizarre feature of the low regard in which higher education in this country is held that a tirade against one of our most successful universities is a vote-winner. As Chris Patten, Oxford’s Chancellor, has dryly noted: it is impossible to imagine a US politician ever seeking to curry favour by having a pop at Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

The University hit the headlines once again this week following the publication of its Green Paper, ‘Oxford’s Academic Strategy’. Such was the import of this document that it dominated the front page of The Times, and was covered extensively by the rest of the broadsheets.

A cogent, honest and thoughtful analysis of the University’s global position in the higher education market-place was rather drowned out by the usual, shrill rent-a-quotes of outrage: ‘Oxford attacked over plans to cut UK students’ (The Guardian), ‘Funding crisis forces Oxford to cut British student places’ (The Times), and ‘Oxford “Sees Foreign Students as Pound Signs”‘ (The Scotsman).

The reality? The University is increasing the number of foreign students it admits from eight to 15%. This compares with 36% rising to 50% at Imperial College London. At the London School of Economics only one-third of students are British. Yet it’s Oxford that gets it in the neck!

Sure, this shift away from home-grown undergraduates will help Oxford balance its books – it may be well-endowed by British and European standards, but is hung like a gnat compared with America’s Ivy League. Above all, though, the increased competition for places will help drive up standards. As the Green Paper noted: ‘The quality of the undergraduate student body is high but there is a ‘tail’.’

Sadly, even my own party has joined the ignorant clamour knocking Oxford, with education spokesman Phil Willis declaring, ‘If Oxford in particular now wants to be a commercial university setting its stall out within a global market place then perhaps the time has come for us to look at any state funding it receives.’

Perhaps Mr Willis would care to name a single Russell Group university which is not setting out its stall within a global market place – if public funding is to be cut perhaps it should be just such a stale and unambitious institution (if it exists) which is first in line for the chop. I’ve invited Mr Willis to visit my work-place, St Anne’s, to see for himself how a modern Oxford college operates, and to meet some of our formidably hard-working tutors and intellectually hungry students. I hope he accepts the offer.

What is most startling about the statement – and it was one among many this week – is the implication that Oxford should be compelled to go private. Yet I have little doubt that those who attack the University today would re-double their assault tomorrow were it to announce its intention to disavow the public purse and set its own market tuition fees. This is, though, the only solution to higher education’s funding malaise.

The state will never be able to provide sufficient public funding for Britain’s universities to be able to compete with our US counterparts. The political parties and wider society should quit kidding ourselves that world-class, universally-free higher education is possible given that, in 2003, 45% of school-leavers progressed to university, compared with 12% in 1979. Instead the Government should work with the universities to ensure a guaranteed needs-blind admissions process.

Somehow the UK has acquired a warped notion that it is morally superior to offer university-entrants a free and mediocre higher education, rather than one which is costed and top-quality. You may be able to get something for nothing; you cannot get the best for nothing.

Simon Jenkins said it most stridently in Wednesday’s Times: ‘Top universities such as Oxford should call the Government’s bluff and set their own fees. They should decide for themselves whom to charge and leave the poor to scholarships and the State. Nor will any Government cut off its nose to spite its face by penalising research grants and driving researchers to America. All that is needed is for the big universities to unite to demand a saner university finance.’

He is asking the universities to call one hell of a bluff. His diagnosis is spot-on; but his prescription would be a bitter pill. If swallowed, it would put them on a collision course with this Government. It would be a tragedy of failed public policy if this were the only alternative available to Britain’s universities.