Leader: Time for Oxford to adopt the Ivy League model

June 20, 2003

The often lengthy period between the naming and arrival of a new vice-chancellor can be a dead time for a university. But the debate now raging at Oxford ensures that there will be no such hiatus while John Hood sees out his notice in Auckland. The question of the balance between postgraduates and undergraduates must be settled if the university is to move forward under his leadership.

Those who argue that it is only through an increase in the number of postgraduates and a greater focus on faculties and research that Oxford can hope to compete internationally on research have a strong case. In the top US universities, the faculties dominate, driving the academic agenda. They can offer the best facilities and rewards.

With the government keen to concentrate research monies on just a few UK universities, it is encumbent on those institutions to ensure that they can deliver. And once Oxford shifts its focus, major governance issues bubble to the surface, placing its collegiate structure under scrutiny.

From the teaching of undergraduates and their selection to the funding of colleges and the appointment of staff, everything will be up in the air should Oxford rise to this challenge. Those who defend the role of the colleges - and the education they provide to undergraduates - represent a powerful lobby.

The difficulty for Oxford is that it will be hard to maintain undergraduate numbers while increasing postgraduate places and facilities. This is why the debate is so intense. Oxford is preparing to throw off its Brideshead Revisited image and enter the 21st century. It must be allowed to do so.

The strong sentiment attached to its traditional undergraduate role should not obscure the real pressures the university is under to deliver on research - and the difficult choices it may be forced to make.

Adopting an Ivy League model makes sense for Oxford and will allow it to attract the best researchers internationally. For school pupils competing for an Oxford place, the overwhelming concern must be that there is a fair and transparent admissions system. This would be less intimidating for those without intimate knowledge of the colleges if it involved direct application to the university. Students could still express a preference for a particular college if they wished. It is how the graduate system works - why not the undergraduate one?

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