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Oxford under siege

The government’s interference in university admissions is unjustified – and may yet push our strongest institutions to go it alone

2 April 2011

12:00 AM

2 April 2011

12:00 AM

The government’s interference in university admissions is unjustified – and may yet push our strongest institutions to go it alone

It is a well-worn tactic for politicians to distract attention from their own failures by picking on an outside target. Thus Nick Clegg’s recent attack on Oxford and Cambridge last month for proposing a maximum of £9,000 in tuition fees. ‘They can’t charge £9,000 unless they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds who presently aren’t going to Oxford and Cambridge,’ said the Deputy Prime Minister.

Let’s set aside the role Nick Clegg’s predecessors played many years ago in the dismantling of those excellent engines for social mobility, the direct grant and grammar schools. Today, thanks to the efforts of politicians, the single biggest barrier to getting socially disadvantaged children into Oxford is the lack of academic attainment in state schools. It is not some elitist determination to engineer admissions so as to exclude bright children from poor homes. As the historian Tony Judt wrote shortly before his untimely death last year, ‘politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity… the gap separating the quality of education received by the privately schooled minority from that of everyone else is greater than at any time since the 1940s.’ It is as though one generation, having climbed the ladder of social mobility, kicked it away from the next.

At Oxford, where I work, we have a different take on being elitist. We want to maintain ourselves as a world-class university by taking the very best, whatever their background. This does not mean, as Nick Clegg seems to suggest, an Oxford dominated by rich Brideshead wannabes. In fact, 10 per cent of the UK undergraduates at Oxford come from households with an income of less than £16,000, which is the threshold for our largest bursaries and fee waivers. And 34 per cent come from household incomes of less than £42,000. They too will receive generous support. The problem, again, is state school standards. Of the 80,000 students eligible for free school meals in the UK last year, only 176 achieved three As at A-level. It is a shocking figure and one the government should be addressing, instead of tackling the nonexistent social barriers to Oxford. Of course Oxford admissions are highly competitive. More than 17,000 applied last year for 3,000 places, an increase of 82 per cent of applications over the last ten years. Applications from the state sector have risen by 73 per cent in that time. Compare that with a 31 per cent rise in the independent sector.

In announcing its new fee proposals last week, Oxford made the point that it is the government’s dramatic cuts to student teaching grants which have particularly damaged the humanities. We would need a fee of £8,000 simply to make up for lost public investment. As it is, this shortfall is handled by subsidies from the colleges and the central university, made possible by past and present philanthropy. The new cuts to teaching will pose real problems, and through internal cross-subsidies will have a negative effect on our research capabilities and in particular our support for postgraduates.

Ill-informed or malicious criticism from the politically motivated is no way to conduct a debate about the future of higher education in Britain. Higher education is one of this country’s areas of excellence, yet the government’s investment in it is less in percentage terms than the worldwide average and makes us ever more dependent on and grateful for private philanthropy.

While successive governments have talked the talk about the importance they attach to the sector, the walk has proved elusive. And with politicians so eager to cut funding with one hand, while with the other swiping at us for our perceived ‘elitism’, it’s no wonder that so many former members of the university and others of its supporters now ask whether the time hasn’t come for Oxford (and Cambridge) to become fully independent of government. Is it time to get away from the endless meddling and attempts at social engineering, which particularly characterised the last government?

American universities provide an encouraging example for those who favour the private option. Yet there are a couple of financial reasons why it would be wrong to be overly sanguine. For a start, British universities cannot, at present, compete with the endowment funding of American institutions.

Oxford’s latest donations appeal has already raised £1 billion or more, and Cambridge has reached a comparable figure. But these impressive sums don’t begin to match Harvard’s endowment, which at its pre-Lehman Brothers high-water mark was $38 billion. It’s now down to $27 billion — but Oxford’s total endowment, colleges and central university, is £3.3 billion.

Can we at Oxford reach a figure closer to Harvard’s? Yes, we can. But there is a cultural mindset to overcome. Since the war, there has been an expectation that high taxes should be used to fund higher education. Until relatively recently, fewer than one in ten Oxford graduates gave anything back to the university on a regular basis. This figure has now risen to 14 per cent. But Ivy League university payback figures tend to vary between 45 and 60 per cent. Unless we can at least double the numbers of our alumni who give regularly, we are not going to be able to compete with Harvard, Yale and Princeton in terms of financial independence. So the challenge for those who want Oxford’s independence is fairly straightforward. You need to do your part.

Then again, Oxford is at least as much a research establishment as a teaching university. Last year, as a reflection of its research excellence as measured by peer review, Oxford received more in research funding than any other UK university, some £280 million. Cambridge was, as in the Boat Race, only a few lengths behind. We would need to ensure, if we became private, that we could compete on a level playing field for research funding, as indeed happens in the university private sector in the US.

So while the temptation to cut loose has never been higher, the culture of giving required to make it happen is unlikely to develop overnight, and the ability of graduates to become benefactors will undoubtedly be affected by higher tuition fees and the need to repay them.

Of course, it is right that those Oxford students who go on to financially rewarding careers should carry part of the cost of their education themselves. They can look forward on average to higher salaries than those who graduate from other universities — and higher, of course, than the mass of taxpayers. But most studies of the returns on university education reckon that society reaps some of the benefit, too. That’s why the withdrawal of almost all government teaching grants, the driving force behind the big hikes in fees announced by more and more universities, is illogical and unjust.

In the meantime, Oxford will continue to play its part by providing an education for the poorer student which is not only the best but just about the cheapest thanks to our system of waivers and bursaries. The question for the coalition is whether they can rise to the challenge, after decades of failure by successive governments, of providing a first-class secondary education in the state sector.

The question for the university, its alumni and other benefactors is equally challenging. Is Oxford content to be used and abused as a political football, and if not, can it become fully independent? It would take a financial mobilisation of military proportions to achieve, but going it alone has never been more attractive.

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