Postgraduate path is way ahead

April 14, 1995

Christopher Ball writes an open letter to the vice chancellor of Oxford University calling for a focus on research. Dear vice chancellor,It is now a month since the final date for comments on the 45 questions identified by your commission of inquiry into the future operation and structure of the University of Oxford.

Although all are interesting, one seems to me fundamental. What should be the university's "mission"; and what should be its distinctive contribution to United Kingdom higher education? In other words, what is Oxford for?

I set aside frivolous answers like losing the Boat Race or being the home of lost causes - or a magnet for tourists. I reject historical functions, such as to educate only members of the Church of England or men or young students. I know that Oxford University seeks to be truly comprehensive in its admissions policy and to do as well as possible all the things that universities do - undergraduate education, postgraduate training, continuing education, advanced scholarship and original research.

And that is the problem. For such a list in no way distinguishes Oxford from any other university. Like any social business, a university should know who its clients are, and what service it offers them. You have to be selective. And this is especially true of smaller institutions. Oxford (15,000 full-time equivalent) is not a large university in world terms, and cannot easily become one, unless it merges with Oxford Brookes University.

At present, Oxford solves the client problem by trying to attract and admit the "best students". But, in spite of continuing efforts to reform the admissions system, the "best" often turn out merely to be the best prepared students.

In practice the meritocratic ideal tends to reinforce privilege. Does it any longer make national sense to lavish the most generous resources on the ablest? We must raise the mean - and slower learners need most help. Oxford's elite can - and often does - teach itself.

But, tempting as the idea is, it would be unrealistic today to suggest that Oxford should become a dedicated university for special needs higher education, or for the underprivileged, or for the local catchment area. (Presumably, the last of these is what Oxford Brookes was created for?) Similarly, I doubt whether it will prove sensible or possible to limit the service offered by subject. Without external intervention universities can rarely bring themselves to close existing departments or resist the pressure to develop new ones. So how can the commission hope to set realistic limits to the services Oxford offers and the clients it seeks to serve? What should be the university's distinctive mission?

I believe that the solution lies in limiting the level of learning. Oxford should become a wholly postgraduate university. The advantages of such a change would be considerable. The university would have a special, clear and coherent mission. Postgraduate training, graduate continuing education, advanced scholarship and original research belong together: good undergraduate education can (and often does) flourish without the first and last of these. Oxford's place as an outstanding international university would be secure. Its rich resources (both intellectual and financial) would be put to best use, and justified. Its size would fit its mission. Its unwitting contribution to our divided society by the creation of the "Oxbridge elite" would be ended.

Almost one third (4,500 FTE) of Oxford students is postgraduate. Even the Boat Race is largely a postgraduate event! And graduate continuing education is also growing apace. For some the end of undergraduate education would be unthinkable. And yet, if Oxford fails to grasp the nettle, I doubt whether it will be able to retain for long its present size, its international standing and its disproportionate share of national resources (both public funds and charitable income).

What would be lost, if Oxford became a wholly postgraduate university? Not the college system or tutorial teaching, which in today's conditions are more appropriate to the taught master's programmes than basic undergraduate education. In combination, they represent so expensive a model of education that they have proved untransferable and cannot survive long in their present form. Not the academic staff, which is so expert and select that it is already virtually a professoriate in all but name. Not resources, since almost a half of all the university's income is research-related.

Of course, if you ask the heads of colleges what they think, they are unlikely to support my thesis. But if you ask the science professors, you may hear a different story. I think Oxford has a stark choice: either to continue to try to do everything and gradually decline in international terms, or to focus on a distinctive and limited mission and retain its reputation for outstanding excellence.

The UK needs a few world-class research universities - Oxford and Cambridge are probably the best we have. I hope you will act boldly to preserve Oxford's greatness.

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Ball

Sir Christopher Ball was warden of Keble College, Oxford 1980-88, chairman of the board of the National Advisory Body for public sector higher education 1982-88, and is now director of learning at the Royal Society of Arts. He is the author of More Means Different, Widening Access to Higher Education (RSA, 1990).

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