It's goodbye to Brideshead

October 13, 2000

Oxford University might have lost its top ranking in the league tables, but it is determined to confirm its 'modern' credentials. Claire Sanders reports on moves to bury Sebastian's teddy.

Is Oxford University in trouble? It does not head a single newspaper league table, it is being overtaken in the external research-income stakes by Imperial College and University College London, and it has had to make cuts of about £9 million this year to balance its books. It also has an image problem.

Its great rival Cambridge is regarded as more entrepreneurial and more modern. And the Laura Spence debacle this summer, when Magdalen College turned away a pupil from a northern comprehensive and drew down the wrath of Gordon Brown, did nothing to dispel its elitist image.

Many vice-chancellors maintain that Britain can only sustain two world-class universities. Will Oxford be one of them?

The university's answer is a firm "yes". It is determined that the outside world should understand both its strengths and the challenges it faces. It wants to get rid of the Brideshead image, and under the banner of "Modern Oxford" it has established a steering committee to promote its technological and scientific strengths. The committee is headed by Sir Peter Williams, master of St Catherine's College, who came to Oxford this year. He was previously chairman of Oxford Instruments, the university's first spin-off.

"Oxford is endlessly misrepresented," said vice-chancellor, Colin Lucas. "The figure of Sebastian Flyte has encouraged caricatures. It is incumbent upon us to explain what we are really doing."

Oxford's changes can be measured in part through its appointments. Since Dr Lucas became vice-chancellor in 1997, the university has appointed a new registrar, a new head of technology transfer arm Isis Innovation, and new heads of legal services, research services and finance. Several new heads of colleges have links with business, notably Sir Peter.

The university has also seen the phenomenal success of its spin-off companies, the establishment of a new science park at Begbroke, the award of the biggest grant to date under the Joint Infrastructure Fund, for a £60 million chemistry building, and the establishment of the Henry Wellcome Centre for Genomic Medicine - to name but a few developments.

Equally crucial, on October 1 a new structure of governance came into force, the most significant change in the way the university runs itself in 35 years. The work of the Hebdomadal Council and the general board have been merged into a university council, with much of the ordinary business undertaken by four major committees. Faculties and departments have been grouped into five divisions. The term of the vice-chancellor has been extended too, to seven years, giving Dr Lucas time to see through major changes.

The university hopes that the new structure will mean the delegation of decisions to appropriate levels, while allowing an overview through the council and its committees. The reforms leave intact the powers of Congregation, meaning that Oxford can still claim to be a community of scholars. This could be described as a quiet revolution, although Dr Lucas is keen to stress that the university is not "some slumbering body that has just woken up".

So why is Oxford not top of the newspaper tables? Andrew Hindmarsh is part of Mayfield University Consultants, the group behind The Times league tables and the individual tables produced in The THES. He has also carried out a number of comparisons of league tables.

He said: "Oxford does not top the tables largely because it has not done as well as other universities in teaching-quality assessments. Most newspaper league tables are heavily weighted towards teaching, and Cambridge has done phenomenally well there. But a close look at the tables does not reveal Oxford to be in serious trouble."

But is Oxford losing out in the research stakes? Do Imperial and UCL present serious challenges? Susan Iverson is the new pro vice-chancellor for research, and heads the committee for planning and resource allocation. "We would argue that the rise of the London colleges in the external research stakes reflects the fact that they have recently incorporated medical schools. But Imperial does not have anywhere near our humanities strengths," she said.

Oxford received more money for research from the Higher Education Funding Council for England than any other university this year, £63 million out of a total Hefce grant of £124 million.

But the university has had to cut spending by 4 per cent in individual departments. "Most universities with which we compare ourselves will clearly have a difficult financial year," Dr Lucas said. "The cumulative effect of national funding policies is showing."

Dr Lucas said Oxford's difficulties stemmed in particular from its need to increase salaries to attract top academics, and the fact that grant income outside the Hefce allocation has not increased in line with projections from the mid-1990s when the university saw a spurt in these sources of funding.

Dr Lucas also pointed out that one reason the Hefce overall grant for Oxford is relatively high this year is because it now includes an element given in lieu of the college fee. This will be progressively cut in future years.

For many at Oxford, funding shortfalls are becoming insupportable. Graham Richards, chairman of chemistry, argued that Oxford should follow its American counterparts into privatisation. Dr Lucas, who has just become convenor of the Russell Group of universities, agreed there is a problem:

"The funding issues that affect all the major universities need to be resolved in the next few years." He would not rule out top-up fees.

Cambridge, in part because of the MIT and Microsoft deals and the legacy of Watson and Crick, is often regarded as the stronger technologically and scientifically. How true is this? Helen Lawton Smith, a senior research associate at the school of geography in Oxford and a research associate at the centre for business research at Cambridge, said: "Initially the culture of Oxford was hostile or indifferent to high-tech enterprise, although this was offset by individual initiatives, such as the founding of Oxford Instruments," she said. "This has now changed, particularly with the arrival of Tim Cook at Isis Innovation in 1997. In many ways the paths of the two universities are now converging."

And is Oxford really so bad on access? Dr Lucas argues that Oxford compares well with other Russell Group universities, according to Hefce's performance indicators.

By the time he leaves office in 2004 Dr Lucas hopes "to leave a university that is a major international player with a flourishing research programme, an undergraduate body that is intelligent and busy, and a university whose reputation is secure".

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