The real lessons from the Ivy League are about fees and donations, not graduate numbers and management style.
The silly season started early this year. And in the austere pages of this paper, too. It is a long-held conviction of The THES and its parent The Times that Oxford ought to emulate the Ivy League. Further, that the way to do this is to destroy its colleges and turn the place into a version of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Princeton, Penn and Cornell universities. This involves a regime of managerial dictatorship and the reconstruction of the student body on the basis of one-third undergraduates to two-thirds graduates.
The idea is pure fantasy. First, a few numbers to show why: it is true that at Harvard only some 6,600 of roughly 20,000 degree students on the books are undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences. But graduate students in the research school number 3,400. The other 10,000 or so are in assorted professional schools, including 1,850 in business, 1,000 in education, 1,900 in law, 800 in medical school, another 800 in public health - not forgetting 443 in the divinity school.
A lot of research comes out of these schools, but they imply an approach to professional education wholly unlike anything that happens anywhere in the UK. And, far from all this entailing managerial dictatorship, Harvard famously runs a regime in which every outfit gets on with its own life unhindered.
A Brit who says "Ivy League" usually means Harvard. But Harvard is wholly atypical, even within the Ivy League. Here is the reality: Dartmouth College has a total enrolment of 5,5, of whom 4,118 are undergraduates.
Dartmouth has a terrific business school - enrolment 434 - and engineering and medical schools. And 558 research students. How about Princeton, the best-run institution of higher education in the world? It has 6,632 students, of whom 4,635 are undergraduates and 1,997 graduates, and no professional schools. Since it takes research seriously, it does not give masters degrees, whereas the fuss about Oxford numbers has nothing to do with research and is all about the fact that the university loses money on undergraduate teaching and hopes to turn a profit on taught masters degrees.
The Ivy League is not one thing but many. Columbia, Penn, Cornell and Harvard are large by private university standards - about 20,000 students, of whom between a quarter and a third are in regular liberal arts undergraduate programmes and about a fifth are earning research degrees.
Cornell is interesting because its total undergraduate population of 13,658 includes vocational schools: there are 761 students in hotel administration, for instance, and 3,037 students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. But Cornell is both a private Ivy League school living on its own endowments, tuition and research grants, and a publicly funded "land grant" college established to promote agricultural science. Penn is unusual in the Ivy League in having an undergraduate business school programme and offering a degree in nursing. But three times as many students are in the undergraduate arts and sciences programme as are getting research degrees as graduates.
Yale lies in the middle of the range - 11,000 students, split 50-50 between undergraduates and graduates, with graduates in the professional schools and the divinity school outnumbering research students: some 3,559 of the former and 2,237 of the latter. Princeton, Brown and Dartmouth are a lot smaller, but they are all research universities.
What can we learn about British higher education from the Ivy League? It is not clear. You might think that we can at least learn that it is nice to have large endowments - but not all do. Harvard, Yale and Princeton are extremely well off, but Columbia's endowment is nothing to get excited about, while Penn turns over $1.6 billion (£900 million) a year on an endowment of barely $3 billion. Its turnover is twice Oxford's but its endowment hardly bigger.
What makes life easier in the Ivy League is common to all private schools in the US. Like every private institution, they charge tuition that covers the costs of educating students and hand out generous financial aid to those who need help. They benefit from the fact that prosperous alumni compete with one another to be generous to their undergraduate and professional schools; and from a culture where corporate philanthropy produces 20 times as much as in the UK. Generous annual giving makes a vast difference, and it is almost invisible in Britain.
As to what this has to do with research, the answer is not much. You could as easily become a great research university by modelling yourself on Berkeley and Michigan as on Harvard - but that's another story.
Alan Ryan is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioural Sciences, Stanford University.