Leader: Fund the elite but keep opening the door to all society

July 13, 2001

The THES 's analysis of universities' wealth shows how much wealthier Oxford and Cambridge are than the rest. That Cambridge is worth some 170 London Guildhall universities gives new meaning to "diversity". Cambridge may outstrip Oxford in terms of net assets, endowments, reserves and liquidity, but both are far ahead of all others: the aristocrats of higher education, sitting on 800 years of accumulated wealth.

Where you stand on whether this is a good thing (at least the United Kingdom has two universities that can compete in the global market), or grossly unfair depends on where you sit. Seen from Cambridge and Oxford's point of view, neither is wealthy compared with its competitors, particularly in the United States. They are only just beginning to offer acceptable if not competitive salaries after years of neglect. They constantly battle to attract and keep good people and lose many because pay is low and housing expensive. Years of under-investment in laboratories and equipment is only now beginning to be addressed. Meanwhile, others round the world are not standing still. Catching up and keeping up is expensive. It is also essential if the UK is not to find itself with an inward-looking university system seen internationally as second rate.

But move away from the Cam and the Cherwell and things look different. Even London's high-prestige institutions face, if anything, worse pressures with less wealth to cushion them. For those without strong research incomes, prospects are grim indeed. Staff at London Guildhall University and other new universities in London work in run-down buildings scattered around the city. In institutions that provide a lifeline to students drawn largely from ethnic minorities and deprived communities, many of them forced by poverty to study from home and take paid work while they do so, it is seen as grotesque that Oxford and Cambridge should get so large a share of limited public money.

Tempting as it may seem, for example to lecturers' union Natfhe with its membership in new universities, cutting Oxbridge funding is not the answer. The answer has to be to find ways to ensure that London Guildhall and others like it have the money they need not just to survive, which they have done admirably for years, but to thrive. Levelling down must not be an option.

Protecting Oxford and Cambridge's funding should not, however, exempt them from the need to change. That their assets are enjoyed by such an obviously privileged group of students opens them - and indeed most of the UK's more affluent universities - to justified criticism. There are signs of change. Oxford has just put £750,000 towards bursaries for poorer students. Both universities make much of the fact that they now take roughly equal numbers of state and independent students. But with two-thirds of students who get grade As at A level in state schools this is not enough. It is time for bold ideas.

One is to find ways to make entry to postgraduate courses less haphazard and dependent on wealth. Another is the collaboration now under discussion with the Open University, pioneer of open access. The Open Cambridge project, which includes a bid by Cambridge and the Open University to the e-university, could go wider than just a commercially viable distance-learning project. Oxford, meanwhile, has been tentatively exploring a collaboration that might offer Open Oxford degrees online with successful first-year students (regardless of qualifications on enrolment) offered residential places and scholarships for subsequent years. This could provide open access to the country's richest universities more effectively than chiselling a few points off A-level scores for students from poor neighbourhoods.

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