Mendicant scholars.

An arcane dispute at Oxford brings the financial strains

 in higher education into sharp relief.

  The reformers deserve support..

W HEN JOHN HOOD BECAME VICE-CHANCELLOR OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY IN OCTOBER 2004, IT SURELY WAS A SIGN that at least some of the institution’s senior staff recognized that wisdom might occasionally be found beyond its walls. The New Zealander was the first outsider to be given the top post in Oxford’s 900-year history, and his clutch of industrial johs and a spell as vice-chancellor shaking up the finances of the University of Auckland—were a warning to traditionalists to watch out.

The old guard soon went head to head with their new boss, and they won the first round. Just eight months into Mr Hood’s tenure, a row over performance reviews for academics led to his defeat in Congregation, the 3,773-strong “dons’ parliament” that is the university’s highest authority.

Two years into the job, Mr Hood is still struggling, and this time the stakes are very higher. On November 14th Congregation will consider his plans to replace the university’s council—a single body of dons with responsibility for matters both learned and financial—with separate academic and financial boards, the second of which will have a slim majority drawn from outside the university. The debate in the Sheldonian Theatre will be rancorous, though the plans have been watered down in response to earlier criticism. A postal vote may follow and, if Mr. Hood is defeated, he may well resign.

Mr Hood’s critics charge that allowing outsiders a say in governance for the first time will destroy what makes Oxford special. Its direct democracy and unwieldy yet charming collegiate structure would face death at the hands of heartless men in business suits, parachuted in six times a year to yea-say the vice-chancellor at all board meetings. “None of this governance tosh is of any significance,” says David Palfreyman, the bursar of New College. “It’s just control freakery.”

Supporters argue that the proposals will simplify decision-making. This should make academics’ lives easier, as well as persuade potential donors that the old university is properly run . Liora Lazarus, a fellow of St Anne’s College, was involved in drafting the plans . At the moment, she says, no one knows whether a discussion has been finished and a decision reached.

Andrew Dilnot, principal of St. Hugh’s College, is part of a group looking for ways to share research money—almost all of which now goes to departments—with colleges. thus giving the latter more incentive to appoint first-rate researchers. That sounds reasonable but some dons, primed to see conspiracies, suspect a plot to make the rich colleges which already do this even richer, at the expense of poorer ones that can’t afford to. A perception that Mr. Hood has been disrespectful of Oxford’s traditions may make other reforms harder.

Oxford’s difficulties are unique. At Cambridge, the only other university with a similarly complicated collegiate structure, the emollient vice-chancellor, Alison Richard, has persuaded colleges, departments and the central administration to work together reasonably amicably. But if Mr. Hood is willing to risk his job it is because he thinks reform is essential if Oxford is to attract the cash to compete internationally for the brightest students and best researchers. And this is a problem that faces each of Britain’s better universities.

British academics are, to an extent that those who work in mere private enterprise cannot imagine, obsessed with money. Partly this is because there is never enough: a huge government-mandated expansion in student numbers since the 1960s has not seen a matching rise in funding. It is also because university finances are fiendishly complicated. Cross-subsidies are common: research grants don’t cover overheads and can require matching funding to trigger them; overseas students are charged more to make good losses on teaching Britons; pricey masters’ degrees pay for undercharged undergraduates.

Leading British academics earn around half of what their counterparts in America get. Their teaching loads are heavier and their administrative tasks more arduous. The £3,000 ($5,710) a year cap on tuition fees for home students does not begin to cover costs: Oxford reckons it spends £13,000 a year teaching each undergraduate, leaving a shortfall of £5,000 even after government subsidies. The cap is due for review in 2008, but universities are unlikely to get a big increase unless they offer poorer undergraduates large bursaries.

So it is astounding that Cambridge and Oxford are still ranked among the world’s best universities, at least according to the Times Higher Education Supplement, which puts them just behind Harvard. But high-flying British students are now beginning to look across the Atlantic.

On November 7th Wellington, a leading private school, held a conference on getting into American universities. The dean of admissions at Princeton, Janet Rapelye, told the conference that a year ago Princeton had had 61 applications from British students and had accepted three; this year those figures were 100 and 11. “American universities look attractive in comparison with Oxbridge, especially their means-tested bursaries,” says Anthony Seldon, Wellington’s headmaster.

Filthy lucre

Those bursaries are possible only because many American universities have big endowments which also allow them to lure the world’s best academics. Sir Peter Lampl, founder of an educational charity, points out that fewer than 10% of Oxford’s alumni contribute to their university or college, compared with 61% of Princeton’s and 45% of Harvard’s. Most British universities do no fund-raising at all.

Britons will probably never be as generous as Americans; they are too used to the idea that higher education is the responsibility of government and they do not get the tax write-off for charitable giving that Americans do. But Cambridge and Oxford, at least, are trying. Last year Cambridge launched an appeal to raise 1 billion by 2012; donations have already reached £300m. Last autumn Oxford recruited Jon Dellandrea, a Canadian fund-raiser with a prodigious reputation. It is expected to launch its own appeal soon.

Oxford also wants to earn better returns on the money it already has . In 2005 a group led by Sir Alan Budd, provost of Queen’s College, prepared a report on investment strategies, in response to which the university’s investment committee is being reformed. Inevitably, the details of this reform are still under discussion.


The Economist

Volume 381. Number 8503. (Pg. 63-4)


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