Shaking off the old image is not without problems

October 13, 2000

Oxford University is keen to improve its image: more modern, open, scientific and technological; less a playground for the rich. But reputations are slow to change. In the ancient rivalry with Cambridge, the latter has the upper hand. Crick and Watson are more famous than Hinshelwood and Hodgkin; Silicon Fen better known than Oxford's more recent enterprises; Microsoft and MIT more Cambridge-inclined.

But this will change. Oxford has reformed its governance (see pages 6-7). Its spin-offs are hugely successful. It has sorted out its policy on intellectual property rights. Its science is world-class, and its new business school is abuilding. But Oxford still has two problems. First is the squeeze on resources. This is cramping all universities competing on a global level, but afflicts most acutely those whose former privileged funding is being phased out. Vice-chancellor Colin Lucas, as convenor of the Russell Group of research-led universities, knows others share Oxford's frustration and that pressure is mounting for privatisation from a sub-set of Russell Group members.

There has to be some scepticism about whether this notion is realistic, given government hostility, antipathy among most academics, the length of time such ideas have been mooted and the lack of concomitant action. Such a move would be politically feasible only in the immediate aftermath of an election, and those who favour it will want to start making plans now.

This raises Oxford's second problem: the speed and thoroughness with which it can escape its upper-crust image. A university claiming to be world-class cannot afford to be thought to favour a small, privileged group, even if too few from poor homes and indifferent schools apply, and the comparison with rich, successful US universities (which give preferential consideration to the children of alumni) is unfair. Raising money for scholarships is one way to help - provided there is certainty that bursaries will not fall foul of means-test traps. But the admissions process must also be above suspicion.

The best solution may be to choose from suitably qualified candidates by lot, which would cut the opportunity costs of a system that brings the university nothing but grief. Here is an idea the House of Commons education select committee might like to consider in its forthcoming report on access.


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