Despite the mostly friendly rivalry and healthy competitiveness between them, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford are far more alike than different. A neutral visitor to both would be struck by their similarities, the differences largely consisting in geography (Oxford city is larger, denser and surrounded by more attractive countryside than Cambridge, which has a more central river and less manufacturing industry). Having done degrees at both I am, I hope, a disinterested observer. On purely sentimental grounds I might be slightly more inclined to Oxford, since we are all to some extent prisoners of our past.
On a visit to Oxford this week I twice fell into conversations about the future of the university, on themes that are equally relevant to Cambridge. The locations of my talks were two college mealtimes – lunch at Keble and dinner at Christ Church. I might have had similar conversations in Cambridge colleges. The key question is financial: what is the future funding arrangement for these old, complex and by British standards, very costly universities?
We are now more than half way through a transition from a high reliance on state funding to a de facto privatisation. The Vice Chancellor of Cambridge said in a speech a while back that direct UK government funding to Cambridge now makes up less than 10% of the total (that excludes indirect funding won competitively from state backed research funding councils). And for that, he argued, you don’t get a seat on the board, let alone the right to dictate policy.
But in the minds of many Oxbridge alumni, at least those who were undergraduates (and so mainly British), these universities remain identified with the public sector. They are in fact charities which were originally independent of the state, even when kings and queens were their benefactors. In the early 21st century they are funded through a mix of student fees, research awards, charitable donations and income from endowments. In structure, though not alas in scale, this funding resembles the major US universities which are Oxbridge’s current competitors.
At the postgraduate level, which has expanded enormously in the last decade or so, the university does what it wants, though it has to make sure its policies are consistent with the funding councils that support many European students on PhDs and masters courses. For example, these councils have recently made clear they will no longer pay the college fees that students pay on top of the university fees, which is leading to some changes in arrangements to make sure that students aren’t disadvantaged.
Postgrad Oxbridge is overwhelming international and relatively disconnected from UK government policy. That’s partly because having two relentlessly meritocratic universities of world class standing, among several others in the UK, is entirely consistent with UK government science and economic goals. While we would welcome more state spending on science in particular, the universities are relatively free to decide their priorities and arrangements.
Undergraduate fees: the only way is up
But at the undergraduate level, things are different. From a pure research point of view the undergrad population is a bit of a nuisance. They consume a lot of resources because the funds from fees plus the residual state support fall short of the high costs of small group teaching that are a hallmark of Oxbridge education. But the longstanding mission of the colleges (not that they would have expressed it that way) has been to educate the brightest students from the UK, and more recently the EU, at undergraduate level. A tiny fraction of these go on to do postgrad study but the undergrad teaching is certainly hard to justify as a feeder to the research activities of the university.
Cambridge and Oxford both charge the maximum £9,000 a year allowed under UK government policy. The government provides a loan for this amount, with interest rates set at below market levels and repayments contingent on the amount that graduates earn, so there should be no disincentive either to go to university or to take lower paid jobs in future. But £9,000 still falls short of the cost of educating an undergraduate and is far less than the market would bear, judged by the fees charged in the US, where they can reach two or three times this amount (Harvard charges $40,000, which is about £26,000 at current exchange rates).
The current British government seems to believe that universities should stand on their own feet but still caps the fees they can charge, which is contradictory. Either we have a free market or we don’t. The problem for the government is that Oxbridge is still seen, at the undergraduate level, as a mainly British affair. A large rise in fees would attract criticism from many British families who hope their children will go there. The hike in fees to £9,000 was far from popular among the upper-middle class from which the majority of Oxbridge undergrads originate. Many of these parents, bafflingly, seem to think they should pay for their offspring’s education. Quite why their kids shouldn’t take out the loan I don’t know.
The future prospect is of the government withdrawing all financial support from British universities, or at least those more able to survive independently. This would be politically popular since most British people don’t go to university. At that point Oxbridge will face the question of whether to follow Harvard et al and charge a far higher fee but use some of the proceeds to fund much larger scholarships, adopting the “needs blind” approach that is common, at least in theory, in the US.
At present the system is already needs blind, so long as a prospective student is willing to take on a loan. There are already scholarships provided by Oxbridge, greatly augmented in the case of Oxford by the recent very generous £75 million donation by Michael Moritz and his wife. The main obstacle to lower income applicants at Oxbridge is their highly unequal access to education resources earlier in their life. This sharply reduces their chances of getting the high A-level (or IB) grades necessary to get a place. A well qualified candidate from a low income background has as good a chance as one from a private school. Quite why such a candidate should be discouraged by the need to take out a loan is not clear to me and, so far as I know, the data from the UK and other countries that introduced fees such as Australia, don’t show any such discouragement, which is essentially irrational. But it may nonetheless exist, which is why Oxbridge provides the scholarships.
Oxbridge: British or merely in Britain?
A needs blind system with much higher fees and far higher financial aid would, in theory, leave applications unchanged but generate more funds for the universities. But there is a second important question. Should Oxbridge then limit applications, or at least charge lower fees, to EU students? So long as the UK is in the EU, no longer to be taken for granted of course, legally there can be no discrimination in favour of UK students. But what about the rest of the world?
If undergrad Oxbridge follows the logic of postgrad Oxbridge, it will seek the best applicants from all over the world. Already non-EU students make up about 10% of Cambridge undergrads (data available here). Colleges have a financial incentive to take the overseas students, who pay up to £33,000 annual fees (it varies by country). And quite often in the subject I know best, economics, there are outstanding overseas students who merit a place.
So will Oxbridge gradually become global undergraduate elite universities? And if so, what will that mean for their relationship with the UK? For a couple of centuries these old universities have dominated the education of the UK elite. But if British applicants are squeezed out by better qualified foreign students they might be rather unhappy about it. These most British of institutions might no longer be seen as British, merely based in Britain.
At a recent University of Cambridge alumni event in Singapore I encountered enormously warm goodwill by alumni towards their old university. But one person, quite prominent in the proceedings, combined a quite genuine love for Cambridge with the view that the UK is a “third rate declining country”. Quite apart from plain rudeness, he seemed to be annoyed that the value of his house in London had been diminished by the falling sterling exchange rate. (I suspect that in the long run he’ll need to worry about a lower Singapore dollar, but leave that aside.) But it did make me realise that the idea of Cambridge – and of Oxford – is something greater than the idea of a leading British university. That is a great strength in an interconnected and increasingly competitive world. But it makes me wonder whether Oxbridge faces a difficult transition in the coming decade.