LEADING ARTICLE:The price of an Oxbridge degree

Share
Related Topics
The English are drawn to "dreaming spires" but inclined to be anxious about "Oxbridge freemasonry". This week's worry is the suggestion by a college treasurer that Oxbridge students or their parents will have to find increasing sums of money for tuition or other charges. This raises fears that recent trends toward admission on the basis of educational achievement rather than family wealth might be reversed, although it tends to ignore the fact that most universities are exploring ways of raising more money from students and their parents, beyond that paid by the state. In other countries, fees paid by students haven't reduced the numbers going to university.

The more interesting point which arises from this latest Oxbridge debate is not whether the colleges should ask students to pay more, but whether Oxbridge colleges still have a valid claim to the pounds 2,000 per student top- up in tuition fees they receive direct from the Exchequer.

This bounty relies upon the claim that Oxbridge offers the highest-quality teaching and research in the country, comparable with the best universities in the developed world. The claim is based on three propositions.

First, one-to-one tutorials are supposed to provide superior teaching. Second, the benefits of bringing together teaching and research activity are said to be exceptionally strong at Oxford and Cambridge, because the calibre of research is so high. Third, the college system is said to provide a unique culture and atmosphere of learning.

In practice, it is by no means clear that Oxbridge teaching is dramatically better than the best elsewhere. Many courses are narrowly conceived: for example, the mix of disciplines in Oxford's famous Philosophy, Politics and Economics course looks inflexible by today's standards. And perhaps one-to-one teaching has a disadvantage in failing to emphasise the collaborative skills that today's jobs demand.

Certainly we need centres of educational excellence, and at an extra pounds 2,000 per head, they would probably be a bargain. The challenge is to route the funding to true centres of excellence, which certainly exist in both Oxford and Cambridge but not in all colleges and all departments at all times.

There is no reason at all why the pounds 2,000 excellence premium should not simply be paid to the best students at the best university departments, wherever they are located. In the longer term, it might also be more rewarding to direct the bulk of this funding towards postgraduate rather than undergraduate teaching. The priority for undergraduate teaching is to ensure that a massive and desirable expansion in numbers doesn't lead to an erosion in quality. Over the next decade, the top departments should probably pull out of undergraduate teaching altogether and concentrate on more demanding masters qualifications of a standard to compete with the best of North America.

The mechanisms for assessing institutions and individuals most deserving an excellence premium are already largely in place. The Higher Education Funding Councils have systems for assessing the quality of teaching and research that could be developed to make sensible comparisons. Measurement of student performance is routine.

If Oxbridge colleges and departments do not earn their place in the league of excellence, they should not be entitled to preferential taxpayer funding.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Permanent Class Teachers Required for 2015/2016 - Suffolk

£21000 - £50000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teachers seeking perma...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teachers Required in Norwich and Great Yarmouth

£20000 - £45000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am working on behalf of a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate - Newly Qualified Teachers Required For Sept 2015

£21000 - £50000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate Teachers/ Newly Qua...

Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate - Newly Qualified Teachers Required For Sept 2015

£21000 - £50000 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Graduate Teachers/ Newly Qua...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Dolphin Square where Lord Sewel allegedly took drugs with prostitutes  

Lord Sewel's real crime was joining the House of Lords in the first place

Boris Corovic
 

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food