The Oxbridge dilemma

Excerpted from “Oxbridge dilemma” – October 03, 2008 Friday, Straits Times, By Jonathan Eyal

The dons of Oxford and of Cambridge University fretted over the image given by the new high-budget Hollywood movie “Brideshead Revisited” of  “champagne-quaffing undergraduates dressed in diner jackets and looked after by armies of servants” that the new movie “conveys precisely the kind of elitist message that “Oxbridge” is keen to discard.”

Background …

“Half a century ago, a mere 5 per cent of the population bothered to acquire a degree; today, the figure stands at 40 per cent.

But, while nobody should have a problem getting a place at some university, entry into Oxford and Cambridge remains the privilege of a few. And Mr John Denham, the minister responsible for higher education claims to know the reason: pure snobbery, he claims.

The school system which prepares British children for university is divided into two main streams: A state-owned “comprehensive” structure which is free and educates most youth, and private schools which charge tuition fees.

High-quality teaching can be found in both categories but, as a rule private schools do better than state ones, partly because they chose their pupils but also because they have the resources to attract good teachers.

For many years, the difference between the two systems was evident in O and A level pass-rates. No longer: the list of subjects on which people cna earn passes has expanded, and A levels are now an almost automatic school-leaving qualification.

The result is that universities which are determined to maintain their standards have no choice but to discriminate. And, unsurprisingly, this tends to favour private schools: 47 per cent of current undergraduates at Oxford and 41 per cent of those at Cambridge were privately educated, despite the fact that private schools attract only 20 per cent of all children.”

The posited solution?

“The sensible answer is surely to increase the quality of tuition in the state sector.” But since the ruling Labour Party dismissed private education as elitist, it has come up with a “novel idea: forcing Oxbridge to be more “representative” in its admissions procedure.

The dilemma for the universities is acute. Unlike their European counterparts which offer four-year courses but weed out failing students after the first year, or US universities where students are given a broad grounding before “majoring” in a subject, British degree courses are condensed: three years, with specialisation from the start.

Short of expanding the duration of the course, the only alternative facing Oxford and Cambridge is to lower entry standards.

Cambridge University vice-chancellor Allison Richard has hinted at the possibility of introducing a “foundation course” of one year; this would allow weaker entrants to be included, in the hope that they stay for the duration.

She had earlier ignited a debate with her remarks that universities are centres of learning and research, not “engines for promoting social justice”.

Lord Chris Patten – the chancellor of Oxford who served as the last colonial governor of Hong Kong – made similar points at a recent conference of headmasters:

“Of course universities have to be concerned about social inclusion, but they should not be expected to make up for the deficiencies of secondary schools,” he said”

“Higher education should help to promote wider educational opportiunities but that should not dilute its other purposes and it should not reduce standards.”

— end of excerpt

Related sidebar article: Oxford chief wants fee cap raised

OXFORD University needs to be allowed to charge more if it wants to compete with its US counterparts, the institution’s chancellor has said.

Lord Chris Patten told an educators’ conference it was “intolerable” that the British government barred Oxford and other universities from charging students more than 3,000 pounds (S$7,600) or so a year for their schooling, and pointed out that top British private schools charge that amount many times over.

The former Conservative Cabinet minister said the cap on fees was set at such a low level that some academics “can’t offer some popular ocourses because of the cost of doing so”.

He said a rise in the cap would enable universities to charge different fees for different subjects which reflected their true expense, the Financial Times reported.

“Can there be a middle-class objection to higher fees?” Lord Patten said on Tuesday. “It is surely a mad world in which parents or grandparents are prepared to shell out tens of thousands of pounds to put their children through private schools to get them into universities, and then object to paying a tuition fee of more than 3,000 pounds when they are there.”

Oxford shares the top of the British academic pyramid with its rival Cambridge, but the endowment commanded by the English-speaking world’s oldest university is small compared to the billions at the disposal of American Ivy League heavyweights.

Harvard has an endowment of US $34.9 billion (S$50 billion) – nearly  six times Oxford’s US$6 billion.

The disparity is mirrored, too in the amount US students pay for their education. Tuition at Harvard is US$32,557 for the 2008-2009 academic year.

Lord Patten said the disparity was degrading the standing British universities. But critics say higher fees would make university a place for the privileged few.


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