In a country like the United Kingdom where there are already far too many universities with few and fewer applicants, the names Oxford (founded c. 1150) and Cambridge (founded c. 1209) should mean more than just a boat race; let them kick away the traces and shine among the world’s oldest centres of learning with the freedom that comes from total independence.
American universities are an encouraging example for those of us who move towards the private option, but Britain’s universities cannot, at present, or possibly in the far distant future, compete with the endowment funding of American universities. Harvard’s, for instance, used to be $38 billion, though the recession has reduced this to a lowly $27 billion. Oxford’s total endowment is just £3.3 billion.
Both have operated as entities of the State since they begged for national financial assistance just after the First World War. But state aid does not come without mostly stifling conditions. Oxford and Cambridge manoevred towards an Act of Parliament approved in 1923 which contains a clause that should be ominous to anyone who has followed the history of state aid, direct grants to schools (now vanished) and the irksome burden of tuition fees. Here we go then: ‘In making any statutes or regulations under this Act the commissioners shall have regard to the need of facilitating the admission of poorer students to the university and colleges’.
This meant in practice that Oxbridge was forced to ensure that students with high qualifications from the private schools were turned away in favour of students with infinitely lesser qualifications, simply because the latter had the undeniable status of having less money. In the last twenty years even the most ancient and distinguished colleges have made the news programmes precisely because of this anomaly. Their spokesmen explain that they ‘need to broaden the student base’. What they don’t say is that they are under huge pressure from government to make Oxford and Cambridge look ‘less elitist’, by which I suppose they mean two ancient universities containing only a Brideshead-type generation. The liberal intellectuals have demanded that the ‘elite’ be replaced by an Oxford and Cambridge containing the Coronation Street-type generation, whatever their qualifications. We seem to have forgotten that universities were founded to encourage the higher education, through teaching and research. They were not founded so that liberal thinkers could use them in their covertly wicked and uncalled-for battles for ‘social rights’.
More and more governments, headed of course by a motley mob of Ministers of Education (sobering thought) put forward the motion that as ‘social mobility’ was to be recommended, it could indeed be encouraged to interfere with academic standards. It was incorrectly pre-supposed that admissions were the business of ministers, not dons. Our present Government has stated that universities which fail to meet ‘agreed figures’ in the proportion of students admitted from state school backgrounds will be forbidden to charge any more than £6000 a year in fees. Also, they may face a fine of up to half a million pounds. The University of Cambridge admits to a ‘plimsoll line’ of 70%, but readily admits that it will be unable to achieve a proportion of more than 63% with suffering a decline in standards. One assumes that this condition is unaltered in Oxford’s case. What is to be done?
The answer is obvious; Oxford and Cambridge, if only for the sake of their unique history must tear themselves away from state control, or go into a permanent decline. Liberal thinkers and armchair dons have always pipe-dreamed that both old universities could become brilliant examples of social diversity, with student bodies reflecting the exact composition of the British population, that is to say a minute scattering of the children of rich men being educated alongside a mass of poorer children as well as an even greater multitude of teens from the suburban middle classes. In this way this rich mixture can learn how to live and work together with people of different cultures, attitudes and accents. In an ideal world, this could and should happen, but how ideal is the world? Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Clegg, has recently said: ‘They (Oxford and Cambridge) can’t charge £9000 unless they can prove that they can dramatically increase the number of people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds who presently aren’t going to Oxford and Cambridge’.
If Oxbridge were to go it alone, become independent of state suasion, it could retain its status among the world’s best institutions by voluntarily opting out of government ‘social engineering’. Oxford and Cambridge are now in the same position as many grammar schools which went private (to survive?) instead of going comprehensive in the Seventies and Eighties. They are long established foundations which have reached a compromise with the State, but do not, and should not belong to it. How can government react to an Oxbridge declaration of independence? Ban all private education and introduce a nationalisation bill? This would cost billions of pounds in compensation to schools’ head teachers and their staff, Masters, Tutors and Fellows of Colleges, as well as the Government having compulsorily to buy every stone in sometimes ancient and protected buildings.
If Oxbridge was to go independent, the main implication would be the loss of what they required in 1919 – an income from the State. Perhaps it would be less of a problem now, as there is a huge influx of foreign students with families accustomed to paying, quite apart from a British middle class richer than anyone’s dreams in 1919. We are told that the current cost per year of educating an undergraduate is around £18,000 a year. Well, foreign families and a large chunk of British families can afford this and have been paying much more in the private schools for years, though the British sector will be loath to admit it. Bursaries and scholarships must be increased to ensure the universities do not deprive themselves of the tremendous pool of talent from lower income families.
The generation now in its fifties, sixties and seventies appreciated to the full their free Oxbridge education, but let us acknowledge the fact that it is a product which has never been properly market-tested. The real price may turn out to be high, but it surely worth it?