Oxford lags behind old rival

January 30, 1998

The North Report on Oxford University was finally published this week. So long awaited, it could hardly help being an anticlimax. It scarcely, for example, discusses the all-important matter of the structural relationship between the university and the colleges. With the government about to alter the way public subsidies are paid to Oxford and Cambridge, if not to remove the money altogether, this is likely to be the key issue in coming months. Nonetheless, those interested in reforming Oxford will no doubt find among its plethora of recommendations and in its voluminous appendices many useful suggestions.

The North Commission represents a wasted opportunity. The years during which it has laboured would have been better spent overhauling the university so that it was not now in its present vulnerable position with respect to a government interested in equity and access alongside excellence. The real measure of the university's inability or unwillingness to reform itself is the suggestion in this report that reforms suggested by Lord Franks in the 1960s, but never implemented, should now be introduced.

It was a mistake for Oxford to ask an insider, the vice-chancellor, to undertake such a review. The result has been that the university's collective powers of obstruction have been mobilised to ensure that the report does not even raise for consideration radical recommendations which would threaten vested interests.

By contrast Cambridge, which had already moved further towards centralising power than Oxford, entrusted its development to a retired Treasury mandarin, Lord Wass. His report in 1989 resulted in streamlining the administration and appointing a full-time vice-chancellor. Since then, to the chagrin of those who dislike the more active management needed for modern universities to be successful, Cambridge has been developing rapidly, opening a gap between the two universities.

True, Oxford pipped Cambridge to top place in the 1996 research assessment exercise, but it entered fewer of its staff (91%) than Cambridge (98%). While ambitious parents spend many thousands of pounds on private school fees in the hope of their children winning an Oxbridge place, Cambridge has been more successful than Oxford (if not successful enough) in attracting top-flight candidates from state schools.

Cambridge, thanks to Trinity College acting as its merchant bank, is decades ahead of Oxford in exploiting its intellectual capital through spin-out companies, though Oxford is now beginning to do more. Oxford's 1980s lead in raising private funds seems to have been overtaken. Cambridge has become a more aggressive (because less squeamish?) fundraiser, while Oxford has become fastidious (and muddled?) to the point of damage.

There are those who argue, as Robert Stevens, master of Pembroke has done, that slowness to change in academic matters has helped keep Oxford as good as it is, protecting it from fads so pervasive in the United States. Certainly change for change's sake has no particular merit but academic and administrative change are different things. Fads have not invaded Cambridge either. Fear of change (not an accusation that could be laid at Dr Stevens's door) is stultifying. A university which spends too much time trying not to change will not attract and keep the innovative minds it needs to stay at the cutting edge either intellectually or administratively.

Fortunately Oxford now has a new team in charge who can distance themselves from recent decisions and pick what they want from this report. They are about to be handed the greatest gift for any reformer: a crisis created by an outside "enemy", the government.

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