No sympathy for Oxford blues 1

June 27, 2003

I was bemused to read that Oxford University has finally decided (sort of) to take its postgraduates seriously, the way the institutions that it compares itself to (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) have been doing for many decades ("Big shake-up and new v-c could take Oxford from ivy-clad to Ivy League", THES , June 20).

Better late than never, I suppose. For now, Oxford postgraduate degrees rank with second-tier US universities. When I was at Oxford not so long ago, postgraduates were well down the great chain of being. It was then, and still largely is, an undergraduate teaching institution at heart, comparable not to the US' top research universities but to its small liberal arts colleges. Having spent several years at US Ivy League institutions, I know that the Oxford DPhil doesn't cut much ice there, unlike a BA.

At £1,100 a year in fees for one-on-one undergraduate tuition, Oxford is the planet's best bargain in higher education. But someone has to pay for it. Like most UK universities, Oxford admits postgraduates as cash cows whom it milks and then neglects. It is the opposite at Harvard, where undergraduates pay large fees to subsidise postgraduates, most of whom receive funding. As a DPhil student at Oxford, I paid thousands of pounds a year in fees to see my "supervisor" for 30 minutes a term. Top City barristers receive less per hour. And I was supposed to feel grateful for that.

Oxford is a much misunderstood, under-appreciated and unfairly maligned institution in many ways, particularly by the present government, which has behaved very irresponsibly towards it. But it cannot expect much sympathy from the likes of me (and thousands of others like me) as it belatedly and reluctantly tries to reform its exploitative and unfair practices in an increasingly desperate race to catch up with the global front-runners in higher education.

Graeme Garrard
Lecturer in politics
Cardiff University

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