The University of Oxford is consulting on plans to create a new “graduate college” that could also accommodate a major expansion in postgraduate numbers, as well as on proposals to mount a smaller expansion of undergraduate numbers – reigniting the debate over the institution’s long-standing resistance to more significant growth.
The proposals, under which expanded postgraduate provision could bring extra fee income and boost future research power to keep pace with global rivals, are included in Oxford’s draft strategic plan for the next five years, set out by the university’s council, its executive body. The plan, seen by Times Higher Education, is currently out for consultation within the institution.
“We will accommodate growth in student numbers that is strategically important to deliver the university’s core mission and academic priorities, whilst recognising our responsibility to preserve and protect nationally vulnerable subjects,” says the draft plan.
Under the plan, approved by the council last month, the university is “by 2023, in partnership with the private sector, to have started the construction of 1,000 additional graduate rooms including the establishment of at least one new graduate college”.
The private-sector partner for the new college and additional graduate rooms is rumoured to be a wealthy individual benefactor, THE understands. Oxford has not created an entirely new college since 1990, when graduate-only Kellogg College was established.
David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, suggested that buildings for a new college could cost at least £150 million and that the institution would require an endowment of about £50 million.
Under the draft plan, the university would “aim to” increase its postgraduate taught student intake by up to 450 a year and postgraduate research student intake by 400 by 2023 “while maintaining quality”. If approved, this would represent a 16 per cent boost to its current postgraduate enrolment, which has been steadily increasing year-on-year, from 3,291 in 2006 to 5,312 in 2016.
THE understands that the proposed new “graduate college” could accommodate this growth in postgraduate numbers.
The proposals also include increasing Oxford’s undergraduate intake by up to 200 a year, with a focus on “strategically important subject areas including computer science, engineering, biomedical science, and joint degrees in economics”. Oxford’s undergraduate numbers have remained static at about 3,200 for the past 10 years, but the proposed increase would mark a 6 per cent rise in current numbers. This is despite a statement in May from the university that there were “no plans to expand overall undergraduate numbers”.
“In terms of undergraduate numbers, both Oxford and Cambridge have stood still while other research-intensive universities have grown fast,” according to Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Mr Hillman said that although the creation of a new graduate college was positive, it was a shame the strategy “wasn’t bolder” and did not allow for provision of a new college for undergraduates as well. He added: “All the public pressures on Oxford – and Cambridge – are around undergraduate numbers and diversity among the undergraduate intake.”
Mr Hillman suggested that it was a similar “missed opportunity” for the University of Cambridge’s North West Cambridge project, which will provide 5,000 “accommodation units” for staff, postgraduates and postdocs – but not undergraduates.
“The fact that [Oxford is] going to go on expanding its graduate-level education, especially when the sector is so worried about Brexit, is a real positive,” Mr Hillman said. “But what it is not going to do is relieve the pressure on Oxford and Cambridge to reflect society, in terms of their undergraduate intake, more than they currently do.”
Lord Adonis, the former Labour education minister, welcomed the plan and said that it was “extraordinary that no new colleges have been founded in recent years”.
“It should lead to a big debate in Oxford about the future of postgraduate education and the areas of study,” he added. “Enabling established researchers to interact with and nurture the rising generation of research students is one of the most important things a university does, but Oxford doesn’t do enough of it.”
Mr Palfreyman said that a big question about the new college would be its location. “There are few central locations in Oxford left, except the old Radcliffe Infirmary site,” he said. “Otherwise, the new college could end up quite far out of town.”
Oxford declined to comment on who the private sector partner would be. A spokesman said that the institution would comment “more fully when its plan has been widely reviewed and formally adopted”.
The university council “is seeking views on a final draft, which Congregation [the university’s “parliament”] will consider during Michaelmas term 2018”, he said.