Rationalise to survive

March 17, 2011

Earlier this month, 681 "deeply concerned" academics from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge wrote an open letter to The Independent newspaper, claiming that they had been forced to "fly blind" in the face of the coalition government's university funding reforms. However, they were silent on Oxbridge's speed in demanding the maximum £9,000 tuition fee. They did not offer alternatives to the current proposals, nor did they address the vital task of widening participation, which will be mandatory under the new regime.

All this points to the need for radical reforms to Oxford and Cambridge. To start, the shortcomings of the outdated college system must be addressed. A first step in this process should be ending their role as the primary gatekeepers to undergraduate admissions. They should be "rationalised", with some of the smaller colleges merged.

Oxbridge's graduate-only colleges are anachronisms given that funding bodies now demand that candidates hold first-year taught master's degrees before doctoral research begins. They should be phased out or expanded to admit mature and "non-standard" undergraduates.

Most of the administration duplicated between the numerous colleges could be pooled or centralised and the savings used to support the tutorial system.

Both universities may also have to consider selling off their publishing and printing operations to fund new bursaries for poor students. They should eventually opt out of their libraries' legal obligation to house every book published, unnecessary in today's fast-accelerating electronic age. The savings could be ploughed into conserving valuable texts and improving reader facilities.

Both ancient universities should consider building central, large-capacity conference facilities that could also provide academic and sporting facilities for students.

Oxford and Cambridge are sitting on gold mines thanks to a tourist trade that could generate more income to support academic activities and restoration costs. Such activities could help to maintain the college tutorial system and fund research.

By taking a long, hard look at the college system and by adopting a more aggressively commercial approach, both of our elite universities could generate a great deal of extra income to offset the new funding regime. This could also prevent further fee hikes that would negate their attempts to widen access.

All this may sound like harsh medicine, but it is better to swallow a bitter pill than end up as stuffed as the dodo.

Anthony Rodriguez, Staines, Middlesex

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