Eye on enterprise and global reach

June 4, 2004

Oxford and Wolverhampton represent opposite ends of the league tables. Claire Sanders and Tony Tysome visit them in search of common ground

Get off the train at Oxford and the university's Said Business School immediately looms into view. The imposing limestone building, which has its own amphitheatre, symbolises the changes that are transforming Oxford University.

For Anthony Hopwood, director of the school, the building signifies the new-found zeal within the ancient academic institution to forge closer links with the commercial world.

"The school makes a strong architectural statement. The fact that it is so prominent and was set up so quickly and successfully speaks volumes about the movement to modernise Oxford," he said. "It shows that we are an outward-looking university, with strong links to business and industry, holding our own globally."

As Sir Colin Lucas prepares to hand over his vice-chancellorship to John Hood, currently vice-chancellor of Auckland University in New Zealand, Oxford is on the cusp of major change.

The challenge is clear: to compete for top academics and funding in an increasingly competitive global higher education market-place. Local connections are in this sense a secondary concern.

The threats were spelt out bluntly by Richard Lambert in the recent Treasury review of business-industry links. Mr Lambert said that the Oxbridge universities needed to generate significantly more money from outside the public purse to keep up with global competitors. Only then would they be able to pay their academics a more competitive wage, to develop their research strengths, to cover their teaching costs and, last but not least, to subsidise talented students.

Earlier this year, a long-term strategy document issued by the university called for an "enterprise culture running through the institution". But the document has fuelled fears that the entrepreneurial drive at Oxford may harm efforts to widen the doors to talented students from poor backgrounds.

Despite a number of schemes over recent years and growing public pressure, Oxford remains one of the elite institutions in the country in terms of student intakes. Just over half of undergraduates come from state school - a tiny proportion compared with the intakes at new universities such as Wolverhampton.

Yet the future, according to the institution's 2020 strategy document, lies with postgraduate study: it proposed an increase in the number of postgraduates at Oxford, which by 2016 could match undergraduate numbers.

An expected increase in overseas students could also mean that home undergraduate numbers fall.

The strategy acknowledged that the drive could create "thorny problems at the interface between the centre and the (Oxford) colleges".

One radical proposal is to dedicate Oxford's colleges exclusively to the liberal arts, detaching medicine and science from the system altogether.

But any changes in students numbers, along with the introduction of Pounds 3,000 fees, will exacerbate the already fraught debate over access at Oxford.

As the strategy document says: "Oxford has been at the centre of much, generally ill-informed, public and political comment over its admissions practices."

Sir Colin argues that academics should stay in control of the admissions process and that this should rest with colleges. Oxford has introduced an extensive bursary programme to offset the impact of fees on poor students.

But for academics and students at Oxford, what matters and what defines the Oxford experience is not so much governance and enterprise or even locality, but quality - the international quality of teaching and research.

KEY FACTS

* Students: total 17,000-plus; overseas, 4,000-plus; postgraduates, 5,600-plus; proportion of undergraduates from state schools, 55 per cent

* Staff: total academic staff, more than 3,800, of whom 96 per cent work in top-rated 5 and 5* departments

* Teaching and research: total teaching grant £59 million; total research income £228 million

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