Oxford University's green paper, which has caused a predictable stir this week, is a remarkably open document. It admits that, among other failings, "nearly all of the university's core activities lose money", that there is a "loose connection" between academic strategy and resource allocation, a shortage of academic stars in some areas and a "tail" of underqualified students in others, and that Oxford's many successes are not widely recognised. It is, of course, easier for a new vice-chancellor to voice such criticisms, but the analysis is still commendably frank. That is probably essential to convince the more conservative elements in the university that change is needed: the downside is that it presents an easy target for those outside.
The paper presents a picture of a world-class university succeeding against the odds: home tuition fees are too low, research not fully funded, a culture of giving yet to be established. But universities that have made painful economies will ask why Oxford cannot learn to live within its means, and those who espouse a more radical agenda will see it as confirmation that severing ties with the state is the only possible route to solvency. Both may be right, but Oxford's proposals deserve to be examined on their own terms. The nuclear (full privatisation) option may eventually be unavoidable, but the university is not ready for it yet. The green paper aims to keep Oxford on an even keel until it is clear whether changes in the "external environment" allow the university to remain internationally competitive. That may mean marginally fewer UK undergraduates - although balanced by increases at postgraduate level - some property sales, slightly larger tutorial groups and a lot of cross-subsidisation.
In the long run, however, Oxford and Cambridge will be able to maintain their unique positions only if the cap on undergraduate tuition fees is lifted and they are much more successful at fundraising. Neither is by any means certain, and higher fees alone would not bridge the gap. The biggest contrast between Harvard and Oxford is not in fee income, but in the £200 million a year lead that Harvard enjoys in alumni and corporate donations. In any case, a Labour government led by Gordon Brown, or even a Tory administration, might be less willing than Tony Blair to allow a fees free-for-all in 2010. The ancient universities, which already receive extra assistance through college fees, would be left hoping that their status as national treasures would demand further special treatment.
In short, a lot needs to go right for the green paper prescription to secure Oxford's long-term future as a world-beater. But, at a time of frightening uncertainty throughout higher education, a holding position is understandable. If implemented, the proposals would bring about some valuable improvements for students and staff.