Michael Franks: Come on, Oxford, tell us what you'll do with £1bn

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The Independent Online

In May this year, Oxford appealed to graduates and supporters for £1.25bn. The graduates are being targeted partly for their money, of course – although only a tiny number can afford to give large amounts – but also for their support. The aim is to raise the number of Oxford alumni who make donations to their alma mater towards levels in the USA, where graduates give billions of dollars to their universities.

The appeal, dubbed "Oxford Thinking", presents graduates with a challenge and an opportunity. First, should I subscribe? This immediately raises two more questions: do I like what is happening; and do I like the vision for Oxford's future being presented in the "Oxford Thinking" booklet?

At the same time, the university is giving graduates an opportunity. In the normal way, apart from the election of the Chancellor, no one is interested in what the graduates think although, numbering 150,000, they are the largest stakeholder group. But now their views are being sought, so the university has to listen to them.

With £1.25bn at stake, and British universities facing financial problems, it's surprising to find that neither the appeal brochure nor the statements made by the Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor and the Pro Vice-Chancellor since May reveal the university's current objectives or its long-term strategy. In particular, there is no explanation of how the appeal is intended to interact with the Government funding system, and no indication of any plan to address the creeping de facto control by Whitehall. So the questions listed above can't be answered without more information.

I would therefore like Oxford to clarify the following. First, Oxford says it is operating at a deficit. But I would like to know what the plan is for balancing the books. Tuition fees pegged at around £3,000 a year and the "one size fits all" subsidy per student ensure that higher-quality/higher-cost universities are underfunded and run at a deficit. For Oxford, this amounts to some £80m. Until now, the deficit has been made up by non-operating income – from investments, research and profits from the Oxford University Press – but, as the Chancellor says: "Oxford can't maintain the status quo." An operating deficit can become a negative cash flow, which in turn can spark a liquidity crisis. The possible repercussions for the cherished Oxford tutorial system have been discussed – but played down. If a liquidity crisis does arise, and the tutorial system is to be safely preserved, where else will cuts in operating costs be made?

I would like to know what is the strategy underlying the appeal. Is it to strengthen the financial base of the university and/or colleges? Is it about acquiring new assets and facilities? Or is it part of a deal to persuade the Government to put up matching funds, improve funding, remove restrictions on fees, relinquish control over numbers, and so on? We should be told.

And how will the money raised through the appeal relate to the current funding system? With the underfunding problem becoming critical, the highest priority would be to improve the financial base of university and colleges. If this is not the case, the sooner it is rebutted the better. If it is correct, we need to know what is being done to restore financial health.

British graduates are being urged to give to their universities in the same way as Ivy League alumni do in the USA. But there are differences between the UK and USA. Although Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy League colleges were all founded on independence from Church and State, the Ivy League has retained a fierce independence and its colleges are characterised as exclusive, rich and influential. They also tend to welcome the children and other relatives of alumni. It is hardly surprising that their graduates support the alma mater – they have gained life membership of a distinguished and powerful club.

Telling Oxford graduates to give like Ivy League alumni is therefore tendentious. No doubt, Oxford did at one time have some of the advantages of US institutions, but not today. What could and should be clawed back, however, is independence from Whitehall.

Those who have studied universities around the world believe strongly that independence from state control benefits the universities and the countries they serve. I would guess that a high proportion of Oxford graduates share this view, and it is self-evident that donors prefer independent to state-controlled organisations. So the best lure to attract the punters to the appeal is the prospect of an independent university – in short, a definite plan, and not just a distant aspiration.

The writer was at Merton College, Oxford from 1946 to 1950. After a brief spell at the Bar, he had a career in industry and commerce