Spires aspire to Ivy League

June 20, 2003

Should Oxford cut first degrees to compete internationally? Claire Sanders reports

Oxford University's undergraduates have included five kings, 25 British prime ministers - and three saints.

To cut undergraduate numbers would be a highly charged emotional issue. But Oxford's focus on first degrees has attracted strong criticism.

David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, said: "Looked at from over here, it is clear that Oxford needs to develop strong faculties and an effective graduate programme if it is to be a comprehensive research university and one of the top ten universities in the world. The collegiate structure, with its focus on undergraduates and much-praised tutorial system, needs to adjust to that."

He acknowledged that the undergraduate education provided by Oxford was highly regarded internationally. He said: "For undergraduates it is fantastic, but it deflects faculties from their own professional advancement. Oxford has been good at providing the sort of generalist needed by the civil service up until about 30 years ago. The question is, should it still be doing that?"

Chris Griffin, vice-president (graduates) at the Oxford University Student Union, said: "The balance between postgraduates and undergraduates is up for review. Harvard and Yale have more postgraduates and are more graduate-focused, and Oxford needs to shift the balance if it is to compete."

At Harvard University, 63 per cent of students are graduates; at Yale University, graduates make up 53 per cent of the student cohort. Oxford has 11,020 undergraduates, who comprise 66.4 per cent of its student population, 2,000 taught postgraduates and 3,500 postgraduate research students. The painful fact for Oxford is that it will be very difficult for it simply to increase postgraduate numbers while keeping undergraduate numbers static.

"We do not have the funding or the space," said Dame Fiona Caldicott, a pro vice-chancellor and head of the Conference of Colleges. "And we are determined that all students are properly accommodated and provided for."

The high cost of accommodation in Oxford and an agreement with the city council mean that the university cannot increase numbers without prior agreement.

Sir Walter Bodmer, principal of Hertford College, believes there might have to be some "give and take" in undergraduate numbers but argued that an increase of, say, 5,000 postgraduates would not be too difficult for the city to cope with. He said the ratio of undergraduates to postgraduates at Oxford should be about 50:50.

Earlier this year, the CoC surveyed its members to gain a picture of student numbers and to see what expansion was planned. It found no evidence of moves, as yet, to cut undergraduate numbers. But postgraduate numbers have increased by 40.6 per cent over the past ten years and undergraduate numbers by 6.7 per cent.

Sir Alan Budd, provost of Queen's College, said: "At this college, we are moving towards a situation where we have one postgraduate for every two undergraduates. That is a slight increase."

As college heads look at their undergraduate provision, they will be aware of exactly how costly it is. Even with the introduction of proposed top-up fees of £1,900, the university will still not cover costs on its undergraduate teaching.

There are, therefore, no incentives to increase undergraduate numbers, whereas the postgraduate market is lucrative, expanding and, crucially, taken far more seriously by US counterparts.

The educational policy and standards committee, headed by pro vice-chancellor Bill Macmillan, sent a number of consultation documents to university members and college heads. The key ones raise issues about postgraduate facilities.

Learning and Teaching in the Collegiate University: Teaching Norms and Subject Families reveals frustration at the slow pace of change. "The place of graduate students within the collegiate university is an issue of long-standing and enduring importance. The arguments for change have been made repeatedly but progress has been slow," it says.

"It remains the case, crucially, that the process of bringing graduate work fully into the mainstream of academic activity in all subjects in Oxford has not yet been completed."

The document also argues that undergraduates are receiving too many tutorials and would benefit from more mixed teaching styles.

Dr Macmillan has worked with Sir Alan to look at how college and university financial priorities could be better matched. They produced a report earlier this year - The Quantum Review Report . This refers to the impact of changes brought about by the divisional structure Oxford adopted in 2001 as a result of the North report.

The university has five major academic divisions in which power and budgets are devolved to departmental level through a financial system known as the resource allocation method. One aim of the system is to allow departments to develop courses quickly in response to market demand. But the demand is all in the postgraduate field, and colleges do not have the same structures in place to meet these demands.

"We are aiming to develop a system that will include colleges in the whole resource allocation method," Sir Alan said. The new system would replace the college-fee system, known as the quantum. In 1999, the government ended the system whereby local education authorities paid a fee directly to Oxbridge colleges. Instead the money came to the university through the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

This money is a declining resource. By 2009 it will be worth only two-thirds of the 1999 value. The funding pays for undergraduate education, in particular for tutorials. Its loss puts one more pressure on the university to switch to postgraduates.

Any new system is also bound to have an impact on appointments. Unlike Cambridge University, all appointments at Oxford are joint university/college appointments. But tensions arise when the university or faculty wants to appoint a strong researcher, perhaps in a narrow area, and the college wants someone who can teach a wide range of undergraduates.

"There is a Darwinian sorting-out of universities at the moment, with strong research universities pulling away from second order ones," Dr Ward said. "Oxford's collegiate and governance structure are in danger of holding it back. It is yet to be seen whether there is the will at the university to change."

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