Hamish McRae: Why Oxford's future matters to the world

At the moment, Britain is the only country that can give the US a run for its money
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The Independent Online

The row about how Oxford University governs itself is not just about the structure of its governing body - though that is the issue that it was wrestling with yesterday, and will return to in two weeks. What it is trying to decide is the role of outsiders in its management. But the much bigger issue is about the role of a great university in an ever-more global economy.

Oxford matters a lot to Britain because it is one of the two British universities that is indubitably in the world super-league. The other is Cambridge, which on most surveys slightly outranks Oxford - on the much-quoted international survey, from Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, Cambridge is second, Oxford 10th, while on the Newsweek one, Cambridge is sixth, Oxford eighth. But the big point here is that all the others in the top 10 are American, with Harvard invariably top.

But if Oxford and Cambridge matter to Britain, they also matter to the world. If they did not exist the US would dominate global intellectual leadership to an even greater extent that it does at the moment. Even those of us like myself who feel great affection and respect for the US would have to admit that this would be unhealthy.

This puts great responsibility on Cambridge and Oxford and, more generally, on British higher education, for other top UK universities are very good too. Imperial College usually gets into the top 20, and University College London, the London School of Economics, Edinburgh and Bristol are all in the Newsweek top 50. By contrast France has one in Newsweek's top 50, and Germany, Italy and Spain none at all. Eventually China and India will develop world-class universities and the countries of continental Europe are now well aware of the challenge they face. At the moment, however, Britain is the only country that can give the US a run for its money.

So we have a global duty to get our higher education right. It is under challenge. Every other country in the world would like a higher share of what is a booming business, and every other country would like the medium-term benefits that improving the education of its best brains will bring. But beyond these come the less tangible and longer-term goal of educating the next generation of people who will end up running the world. Do that well and there is hope for us all.

I can give an example. Britain has over the years educated large numbers of Chinese people. We were told a few weeks ago by an eminent Chinese banker that one of the reasons why China was managing its transition to a market economy much more successfully than Russia was the link with Oxford. He had himself been educated at Oxford, and when China was seeking advice on how to manage the transition, it went to Oxford dons, a number of whom visited China and held seminars there. They were cautious. They stressed the need for politically sensitive reforms, a process that worked with the grain of society. They had worked in government too, and at least one had practical experience of dismantling wartime controls.

By contrast, the banker said, Russia went to Harvard, got people who might be great on economic theory but knew nothing about the real world - and completely messed up the transition.

If that is right, and I think there is a fair degree of truth in it, then Oxford has had a big role in the most important economic success story in the world, the economic take-off of China. That is influence. Score one for Oxford over Harvard.

Now I should at this stage disclose an interest. I have over the past couple of years had a worm's-eye view of Oxford as I am married to Frances Cairncross, head of Exeter College there. So I suppose I have begun to absorb some of the ethos of the place. In particular I am impressed by the amount of individual attention given to undergraduates, which is surely far greater than they would receive at an equivalent US university. Indeed in terms of quality of education at an undergraduate level, Oxford and Cambridge must outrank the US Ivy League. Score another for Oxford over Harvard.

So where is the problem? The word "money" has cropped up again and again in the recent debate, and you don't need to spend very long over the port and snuff at High Table to appreciate that there is indeed a problem competing for talent against the much richer US universities. But all UK universities face this, and in the past two or three years places such as the London School of Economics have been much more successful at attracting stars. So money is a problem, and being forced to lose money on your basic service, undergraduate education, is a continuing burden. But it is now being acknowledged and that is the first step towards it being tackled.

Is the fragmented college structure a problem? It seems to me to be quite the reverse. In business, one of the questions that keeps coming up is when to co-operate and when to compete, although in practice all businesses do both all the time. There may be some case for rebalancing what is done at a college level and what is done at a university level, but it would surely be unwise to undermine institutions that have been around for hundreds of years. Besides, an Oxford college builds loyalty; it is a club of which you are member for life.

So Oxford will be all right. On a long view this period of introspection will prove to be no bad thing - it is always worthwhile to be forced to figure out how well you are doing and how you might do better. But the real opportunity seems to be to go far beyond Oxford. We need to figure out as a country how well we are doing and how we might do better.

Part of this is down to the Government. It is extraordinary that we are making this huge and expensive effort for the Olympics and yet do not cherish our excellence in the top universities. Why should excellence in sport rank above excellence in higher education? We have to acknowledge that Oxford and Cambridge are elite institutions and celebrate that.

But global competition is increasing. More of our own top kids are going to US universities. Continental universities are going for the global market, starting for example to teach in English. The US, having suffered after 9/11 from visa restrictions, is fighting back. Our own student visa requirements, I was told by a Chinese diplomat last week, have become really onerous and student applications from China have been falling.

Above all, though, this is not just about universities or about government policy. It is much bigger than that. It is about giving intellectual leadership to the world - about shaping ideas for a generation and more to come. So that is why Oxford matters and why we should wish it well.