Oxford drive to restore its reputation

January 28, 2005

Oxford University's proposals for a new academic strategy followed a "reputation audit" revealing that outsiders fail to appreciate its strength and attempts to widen access.

This week's publication by Oxford of a "green paper" on the university's future came after a three-month audit found that "policymakers and influencers" were under the false impression that the institution no longer ranked among the world's top research universities.

The paper says that a recent benchmarking exercise by consultants McKinsey had confirmed the findings of The Times Higher 's world university rankings, which placed Oxford in fifth position.

But the audit found that not all policymakers were aware of this fact. It found that many people knew little of the university's recent efforts to improve access and admissions policies.

John Hood, Oxford's vice-chancellor, told The Times Higher this week that the green paper was the first step in a campaign to improve the university's image in the light of the audit findings.

There are concerns that unless Oxford improves its image, it will not be able to attract the extra private investment it needs or to justify raising tuition fees if the £3,000-a-year cap is lifted in 2009.

The green paper, which outlines proposals for a new academic strategy, warns that the university will struggle to maintain its present world ranking unless it raises more money to counter "chronic underfunding".

Bill MacMillan, Oxford's pro vice-chancellor (academic), said the audit showed that the university needed to work harder on getting the facts across to key figures and the general public.

He said: "In the past, we felt that all we had to do was to refine our processes. We recognise now that we have to have processes that are demonstrably fair, and persuade people that we are doing things in the most professional and open way that we can."

The green paper says that with a £95 million deficit in teaching and research in 2003, the university has been forced to rely on a £20 million annual "dividend" from Oxford University Press to help with running costs.

Dr Hood told The Times Higher that with the prospect of higher top-up fees from 2009 and the Government's decision to cover the full costs of research, the university's financial prospects were looking brighter.

Oxford also plans to sell £80 million worth of non-academic land it owns in the next two to three years, and to increase its proportion of full fee-paying overseas students from 8 to 15 per cent. Meanwhile, home undergraduate numbers look set to fall and postgraduate intake to increase.

"I think it is important for us to stress that the direction of travel on funding is now positive," Dr Hood said.

But the paper warns that unless Oxford gets to work on its image, its ambitions may still not be realised.

It says: "The ability of the university to sustain or improve its academic performance is conditional on its success in persuading alumni, Government and the wider world that it is capable of doing so."


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