Historian ditches 'naive' UK

September 6, 2002

One of Oxford's top historians, who is poised to leave for the US, has criticised the "naive egalitarian assumptions" made about higher education funding in the UK.

Niall Ferguson, professor of political and financial history at Jesus College, said: "You simply cannot have world-class universities on NHS funding."

Professor Ferguson, whose bestselling books have made him a millionaire, will leave Oxford in January to take up a post at the Stern Business School at New York University.

"We need to recognise that all universities are not the same. US universities are much better at accumulating and distributing resources," he said. "The top UK universities should be aiming to run themselves as Harvard does."

Part of his interest in working in America is to gain an insight into the funding system. "Top universities need to regain financial independence. They will never be properly funded by the British government," he said.

Oxford is reviewing a number of funding options, including charging students higher fees and gaining greater independence from the funding council.

Professor Ferguson's contract is for two years, but he said he would not automatically return to the UK. "At the level of senior professors with international reputations, the differential between British and American academic salaries is very large," he said.

But he added that money was not the main reason for his flight. Currently working on a series of projects, including a TV series, "Empire", for Channel 4, Professor Ferguson spoke of the time pressures on Oxford academics. "The tutorial system provides the best undergraduate education in the world, but it is also the most labour-intensive system of teaching."

Teaching 70 MBA students in a tower block at NYU will be a world apart from individual tutorials at Jesus College. He will be in New York for only one semester a year, spending the remaining eight months researching and writing.

"British economic history has lost talent. It is remarkable how much new and important work is done in the US and how little is done here," he said.

Professor Ferguson's move comes amid fears of an exodus of academic talent to the US. While the brain drain has traditionally been associated with sciences, those on the move include historian Simon Schama and the classics professor Richard Jenkyns.

Oxford played down Professor Ferguson's departure. "Over the past year alone Oxford has appointed many high-profile academics from renowned institutions around the world," a spokesman said.

These include William Dutton, professor of communications, Juton Hein, professor of bioinformatics, and Robert Allen, professor of economics.

Anthony Hopwood, dean of Oxford's Said Business School, said: "When media dons leave there is always a lot of fuss. The arrival of big-name but less media-friendly academics in Oxford does not attract the same attention."

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