Oxbridge is patently successful

October 7, 2005

Oxford and Cambridge universities are medieval institutions that show every sign of making it big in the 21st century.

Oxford claims to have 3,000 staff, most of whom are active in research, and 3,000 postgraduates. Its research income was £228 million in 2002-03, of which science brought in £63 million, behind medicine at £92 million but still substantial.

At Cambridge, too, the numbers are large, with research income standing at £264 million in 2004. This, the biggest research income of any UK university, is 60 per cent higher than the figure of five years ago. Cambridge points out that it gained 20 research grants of more than £1 million in 2004, on topics ranging from the design of a silent aircraft to psychiatric disease in adolescents.

This success might suggest that these universities are doing most things right already. But both are going through periods of potential upheaval with imported and comparatively new vice-chancellors.

One of the ambitions the vice-chancellors share is to introduce a more systematic management structure. Their proposals have been seen by some as a threat to staff control and to the status of the colleges within the university.

The colleges exist in inexplicable but somehow functional relation to their respective university as a whole, along lines that the management academics at the universities' business schools (the Judge Business School in Cambridge and the Said Business School in Oxford) would surely not regard as rational.

However, one purpose of the proposed reforms at both universities is to increase their fundraising powers around the world, tapping into their alumni, companies and other potential donors. Success in this arena would make them more powerful competitors in research, for example by funding major equipment or bringing in more top staff.

Both universities successfully attracted internationally mobile academics and recently succeded in talking some staff out of accepting lucrative offers from the US.

Oxford and Cambridge are also better than most European universities at turning brain power into spending power. Oxford's commercial arm, Isis Innovation, says it submits a patent claim per week. It has been responsible for 39 spin-offs worth about £2 billion - not bad for a university that The Times Higher revealed last week as the worst payer in UK academe.

At Cambridge, university consultancy CUTS brought in £4 million last year and inventions made more than £2 million, of which £1 million found its way into the pockets of academics - another good reason, perhaps, to turn down that offer from the US.

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