From Dr Who to Star Wars

January 4, 2008

Conor Farrington was sceptical when two American Rhodes scholars slated everything about Oxford. Then he found himself at Harvard ...

Condemnation of Oxford University as "outdated", "frustrating" and "less than inspiring" gained two Rhodes scholars from Harvard University their 15 minutes of fame this year. Oxford's libraries and culinary services came in for the most severe censure, with useful research materials and edible food apparently at a premium.

I hadn't been to Harvard at that time, but I remember thinking that its facilities must be tremendous if those of Britain's second richest university seemed so paltry by comparison. In any case, when I found out that I was to visit Harvard for three months as part of my PhD, I wondered if I would experience the Rhodesian view of Oxford in reverse. Harvard's endowment is more than four times the size of that of my own university, Cambridge. Would studying at Harvard be four times as good?

Fittingly, the first thing I noticed about Harvard was the food. Three or four catered seminar lunches down the line, I began to see where the Rhodes scholars were coming from. And when I looked into Harvard's finances in more detail, the concrete benefits of its enormous resources for students and staff became more and more apparent. More than 70 per cent of Harvard undergraduates receive some form of financial aid, with an average annual package of about $24,000 (£11,900). Graduate students are supported by an impressive number of scholarships and fellowships.

According to Gowher Rizvi, director of Harvard's Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation, these opportunities "are just not available elsewhere". By comparison, he adds, Cambridge and Oxford offer fewer studentships, for a shorter period of time, in more expensive living conditions, charging higher fees, making it hard for the UK to match the mesmeric pull of Harvard and other top US universities. The result is a transatlantic exodus of the UK's best and brightest graduate students.

The brain drain also affects high-level faculty, with historians Niall Ferguson and David Armitage, developmental psychologist Paul Harris and political scientist Pippa Norris just a few of Britain's Harvard-based exports. Higher salaries are one reason for relocating to the US, with full professors at Harvard enjoying average salaries of about £84,000 in 2004, as opposed to £53,000 for their Cambridge counterparts.

More importantly, as Ferguson notes, the resources available to support research are vastly greater in the US. "Going from Oxford to Harvard is like going from Dr Who to Star Wars . It's not that Dr Who isn't great, but Star Wars has a much bigger budget."

Yet the plucky Brits continue to punch above their weight, with four universities (Oxford, Cambridge, University College London and Imperial College London) in the top ten of the most recent Times Higher -QS World University Rankings. Cambridge also leads the Nobel prize rankings with 82 awards; Harvard has "only" 43. The stringent post-9/11 US visa regime helps to make the UK an attractive alternative destination, and of course Britain's ancient universities boast an unrivalled academic heritage. At least for the time being, top British universities still attract world- class staff and students.

However, according to Lord Rees, the president of the Royal Society, it can't go on for ever. Unless British universities can stem the transatlantic brain drain and raise financial rewards for staff and students, we risk a "downward spiral that would jeopardise our competitiveness".

What can be done? Rees suggests two key strategies. First, the UK should engage more with continental Europe, which Rees sees as an intellectual as well as an economic superpower. Projects such as the Cern particle physics laboratory near Geneva point to the ability of Europe to "fully match the US if we optimally develop a European research community".

Second, public and private funding of higher education needs to increase. Whereas the US currently spends around 2.6 per cent of gross domestic product on higher education, the UK spends only 1.1 per cent.

Such changes in the UK academic environment, added to recent large-scale, US-style fundraising campaigns at both Oxford and Cambridge, would doubtless aid competitiveness and maintain the UK's strong position in global higher education. More importantly, they might - just might - allow Oxford's chefs to keep even Rhodes scholars happy.

Conor Farrington is a doctoral student at King's College, Cambridge, researching Latin American local democracy. He recently visited Harvard University as a research associate at the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

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