Club together to get more cash, Oxford colleges told

July 16, 2004

Oxford University should follow the example of Yale and Harvard universities and establish a single in-house "investment club" to make better use of its £2.1 billion in assets, two influential figures said this week.

Had it done so in the mid-1980s, when its Ivy League rivals took the step, it would now be at least five times richer and better placed to go private or to offset the impact of top-up fees with more scholarships for poor students, said Richard Lofthouse, a Corpus Christi fellow who sits on Oxford's budget and finance committee.

Dr Lofthouse's arguments are backed by Fram Dinshaw, bursar of St Catherine's College. He said this week that his college would "jump at the opportunity" to add its £33 million in assets to a professionally managed central fund that pooled college and university endowments.

The comments came as Oxford's 36 colleges published their accounts for the first time in a single format, as the Government had recommended, to make them easier to understand.

The accounts show a yawning gap between the wealth of the richest and the poorest colleges. The total assets of all the colleges are worth about Pounds 1.6 billion, while the university has endowments worth about £425 million.

Consolidating the colleges' assets would be much more efficient than the present situation, in which each college manages its own endowments, Dr Lofthouse and Dr Dinshaw said. It would allow Oxford to invest in private equity, hedge funds and venture capital - vehicles that require more financial clout than most individual colleges can muster.

Both want the university to consider creating a central fund as part of an institution-wide review outlined in its Vision 2020 strategy document. But the colleges would have to drop their "entrenched" opposition to change for this to happen, they said.

Dr Lofthouse said: "Vision 2020 offers the opportunity to reorganise things, if there is enlightened leadership that is willing to push for the kind of set-up we are calling for. But at the moment, that is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas because of the massively entrenched defence of college autonomy."

Dr Dinshaw said the way colleges managed their assets was "still all based on the smoked salmon-pushing network".

"It may take five years for people to realise that the advantages of scale are enormous. The danger is that the university does it at half-cock and risks tainting the whole idea," he said.

Oxford student union president John Blake told The Times Higher that students at the poorer colleges were losing out educationally and financially. They often got fewer tutorials and paid higher rents than their peers at the richer colleges, he claimed.

The university's college contributions fund, which is designed to even out funding imbalances, was not making enough difference, he added.

"If we continue with a system where the colleges are autonomous, there is a danger that any extra money will be wasted and will not address this problem," he said.

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