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LEADING ARTICLE:The price of an Oxbridge degree

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.