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A declaration of independence

In ten years’ time Oxford and Cambridge universities could be shining examples of social diversity, their student bodies reflecting the exact composition of the British population, a few sons of aristocrats educated alongside the children of benefit claimants from Teesside and a greater mass of suburban middle classes; all of them learning how to rub along with people of different cultures, attitudes and accents.

2 March 2011

6:00 AM

2 March 2011

6:00 AM

In ten years’ time Oxford and Cambridge universities could be shining examples of social diversity, their student bodies reflecting the exact composition of the British population, a few sons of aristocrats educated alongside the children of benefit claimants from Teesside and a greater mass of suburban middle classes; all of them learning how to rub along with people of different cultures, attitudes and accents.

In ten years’ time Oxford and Cambridge universities could be shining examples of social diversity, their student bodies reflecting the exact composition of the British population, a few sons of aristocrats educated alongside the children of benefit claimants from Teesside and a greater mass of suburban middle classes; all of them learning how to rub along with people of different cultures, attitudes and accents.

Alternatively, our two ancient universities could retain their status among the world’s best such institutions by going private and opting out of government social engineering. This is a possibility which the government seems to have overlooked in its plans to impose greater influence over admissions in return for powers to levy £9,000-a-year tuition fees.

It certainly has not been overlooked by Oxford and Cambridge themselves.     While for years they have mulled over the possibility of declaring independence, the reduction of teaching grants has given them renewed incentive.
Oxford and Cambridge have both operated as arms of the state since they first begged for financial assistance in 1919. State aid did not come without conditions: the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923 contains a clause which will have a familiar ring to anyone who has been following the political battle over tuition fees in 2011: ‘In making any statutes or regulations under this Act the commissioners shall have regard to the need of facilitating the admission of poorer students to the university and colleges.’


For most of the 20th century the rules worked well enough: Oxford and Cambridge both accepted the need to broaden the student base, which had narrowed somewhat during the 18th and 19th centuries compared with earlier centuries, when ‘fetchers’ were sent to the moors of northern England to bring poor students to their studies. In return, governments accepted that, while social mobility was desirable, it should never be allowed to interfere with academic standards and that the admissions system was the business of dons, not ministers.

That has now changed. It is becoming increasingly clear that Oxford and Cambridge will not be able easily to dismiss the demands of the Office of Fair Access. The government has said that universities which fail to meet benchmarks for the proportion of students admitted from state school backgrounds will be forbidden from charging more than £6,000 a year in fees, and may be fined up to £500,000. Cambridge has already been set a benchmark of 70 per cent but has warned that it will not be able to achieve a proportion of more than 63 per cent without suffering a decline in standards.

The politics make for little prospect of the government relaxing its proposals: Nick Clegg is owed a favour for his support of higher tuition fees, and greater access for state school pupils is his price. The stage is set: Oxford and Cambridge must tear themselves free of state control or else condemn themselves to decline.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities are in the same position as the many grammar schools which went private rather than go comprehensive in the 1970s: they are long-established foundations which have entered into an arrangement with the state but do not belong to it. To exert full control the government would have to ban all private education or to introduce a full nationalisation bill, paying billions of pounds in compensation to the Masters and Fellows to compulsorily purchase every last stone. Neither is remotely likely.

The main implication of a declaration of independence by Oxford and Cambridge is the loss of what both universities begged for in 1919: an income from the state. Yet this would be less of a problem now. An increase in foreign students, especially graduates, and greater commercial exploitation of research in recent years has narrowed the requirement for public money: 18 per cent of Cambridge’s £1.14 billion a year income comes from the government.

The lost money could be made up by increasing graduate numbers still further, admitting more high-paying foreign students and increasing student fees to an average of £18,000, the current cost of educating an undergraduate, with the use of bursaries to ensure the universities do not deprive themselves of the pool of talent from low-income families.

Only in the imagination of ministers are Oxbridge degrees worth only 20 per cent more than those from the University of Luton — the government reckoned on creating a ‘market’ in which Oxbridge might charge £9,000 a year against an average of £7,500 a year for other universities. Much as my generation appreciated our free Oxbridge education, it is a product which has never been properly market-tested. The genuine price may turn out to be surprisingly high.


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