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Leading atticle: An ancient institution and a glimpse of the future

It would be easy to disparage the massive fund-raising campaign, launched yesterday by Oxford University, to raise a hefty £1.25bn. Only such an elite institution, it might be said, would have the slightest chance of raising such a sum in what Oxford is describing as the biggest fund-raising project in European university history.

There will also be those tempted to ask why Oxford, a university already in receipt of comparatively generous government funding and additionally blessed with endowments through its individual colleges, has need of more money at all. At a time when it is universally accepted that higher education should be accessible to the greatest possible number – and our top universities are under pressure to broaden the social base of their admissions – would not the success of this appeal serve only to widen existing disparities between Oxford and Cambridge and the rest?

The answer to this last question is yes, it may widen the gap, at least for a time. And, yes, the project is elitist – but none the worse for that. The stated aim of Oxford's campaign is to secure the university's financial future "in a world of uncertain state funding and growing global competition". But it is also to put the university on a par with the leading universities of the United States, which regularly top international league tables. We see nothing wrong with that. With national wealth generated no longer primarily by natural resources or manufacturing, but by intellectual capital, our universities are among our most important institutions. It is only sensible to champion our prize assets.

Oxford is surely right to believe that, to become truly competitive, it must escape, so far as possible, dependence on the vagaries of government funding. Current pressures on public spending only support that judgement. Government funding is never likely to be enough to support a truly global powerhouse. There is room for much more self-reliance.

Behind Oxford's campaign lies the assumption that, if British universities are to be internationally competitive, they will have to adopt funding structures similar to the premier universities in the United States. This means developing a sophisticated fund-raising operation, consistently appealing to graduates for support, and involving those who have enjoyed Oxford's advantages more closely in the future of the university.

There may be questions about how far British universities can replicate US Ivy League fundraising: the charitable cultures of our two countries are very different. But if any British university is going to reach global pre-eminence via private fundraising, then it will be Oxford or Cambridge, or a one-off institution such as the London School of Economics or Imperial College.

It is also important to remember that endowments are only one side of the funding story, one aspect of a shift in approach that the entire higher education sector in Britain needs to implement. In a fiercely competitive global marketplace, universities and colleges will need to specialise in the courses they offer to confer the sort of skills and expertise that are in demand from students and businesses. They need to be flexible and fast-moving. Other higher education institutions have been given the opportunity to earn their own living through charging variable tuition fees. They must use this freedom, or risk withering.

For this is the way of the future. The loyalty of alumni and the interest of benevolent outsiders are resources woefully under-exploited in Britain. And the advent of tuition fees has given every university the means to chart its own course. Oxford's dash for independence and dynamism is one that others should enthusiastically follow.