Strategy for Survival

Many of my colleagues long for 1997, when there will be a change of government, and the present hostility to universities will cease, and grants will once again flow plenteously. They long in vain. Although the government is hostile and has done much to damage them, it is only reflecting public opinion, and any government, of whatever colour, would find it increasingly difficult to find money for universities, or to justify its expenditure to taxpayers. Taxpayers are increasingly reluctant to part with their money; the demands for money to be spent on health and social security grow more insistent as the population ages and medicine becomes more high tech. Providing more prisons, more nursery schools, will win more votes than student grants or institutes of classical studies. It is idle to yearn for a golden yesteryear when a deferential electorate supported higher education as a Good Thing, and quinquennial grants flowed freely. We have lost public support (largely through our own fault, it needs to be said), and are now learning that public money was a highly addictive drug, and its withdrawal symptoms correspondingly unpleasant.

If we are to wean ourselves off public money, we must think hard where else to get money from, and how to make do with less. Thus far we have thinking mostly of an Appeal, and some senior members have made valiant efforts to raise funds from private sources. What benefactors like to support are new projects, preferably buildings, which themselves impose other, often unrecognised, expenditures on upkeep or in meeting neighbourhood costs; we expand, we take on new, sometimes worthwhile, activities, but end up even more stretched for cash than we were in the first place. Often also we extract small sums now at the cost of forgoing large, unforced benefactions later. I hear the murmurings among old members when money is mentioned at the Gaudy, and realise that though, if pestered on the telephone, they will give something to be rid of us, their attitude thereafter is changed, and having paid their dues, they are quit, and no lingering sense of deep gratitude remains which one day will result in a genuinely generous gesture. We are plucking the goose, and though many feathers weigh something today, golden eggs forgone will make tomorrow's finances more straitened still.

Our main difficulty in raising money in a market economy is that our chief products---ideas, insights, knowledge---are not privative, and so cannot be exchanged for money. If I make cars, I can sell them to you, because it is only if I give it up that one of my cars can become yours: but if I have an idea, I find it difficult to keep it to myself, and once I have shared it with you, there is nothing to stop you sharing it with anybody else. In discovering and dissemination knowledge, we are creating public goods, and there is no need for any private individual to cough up cash in order to benefit from what we do. Could we raise money from the knowledge-based industries that locate themselves in Oxford, and benefit from our activities? I doubt it. True, Blackwells have been extraordinarily generous, both to University and Colleges, but that is the manifestation of family generosity, not the necessary expense of a commercial concern. Although we might try passing the hat round those many enterprises that flourish under our shadow, it is in the interest of each to leave it to its competitors to pay.

Although our central activities are ones we cannot charge for, there are others which are privative, and which we can refuse to share except on payment of a fee. We could, as a conceptual possibility, charge hefty fees for access to Bodley and other libraries, though to do so would run counter to one of our fundamental purposes. We could charge for certifying: the University used to make much of its money from degree fees, and might well do so again; but degrees now carry little information that prospective employers want, and they all demand references. I write many references, and when they are for commercial firms have a PS suggesting a contribution to the Campaign for Oxford Appeal; I don't think the suggestion has ever been acted on, and wonder whether we, in conjunction with other universities, should not institute a practice of charging, say 50, for each reference. Besides raising money, it would have two other benefits: it would discourage personel departments from asking for references just for form's sake; and it would remind us, when writing a reference that our duty was towards the person we were writing to, not the person we were writing about. Clearly, charging for references is not something Oxford could do on its own; but we could take a lead in encouraging all universities to make common cause.

In time past our chief source of revenue was from housing and teaching the young. At present we under-charge on both counts. In doing this, we think we are doing the young a favour, but in fact we are wronging both them and other universities. Because Oxford and Cambridge undercharge undergraduates for board and accommodation, other universities find it difficult to charge realistic rents, and our own pupils are given a distorted picture of the facts of economic life, which leaves them ill prepared for living in an unsubsidised world after they go down. Although perfect economic transparency is a will'o'the wisp, and many of the benefits and costs of Oxford are unquantifiable or unattributable, we could still go a long way towards greater realism. We fail to do so because we still inhabit, intellectually, as pre-1979 world, and forget that now most undergraduates' fathers are paying much less income tax than when we were young. Though OUSU regularly bleats about the poverty of students, it is very evident that many are not poor, and can afford music centres, word- processors, and many bottles of champagne at the end of finals. Many, but not all. Though genetics suggests that those able enough to get to Oxford are likely to have successful parents, it also suggests, what observation confirms, that there are some who are clever enough to be here but who did not choose rich fathers. We need to cater for them. It is what our endowments were, very largely, given us for. In the years after the war, when state scholarships were adequate and readily available, we allowed our scholarships to fade into mere prizes, and to divert our revenues to other ends. We now need to re-institute our entrance awards, and make it possible for the poor, as in earlier days, to come to Oxford without needing to borrow, or to mortgage their future to repaying some government loan, but to come, on their merits, free of all financial obligation, free to become a chartered accountant and become rich, if that is their idea of the good life, but free also to become a probation officer, a clergyman, or a teacher, if that appears to be the vocation to which they are called.1

We do not know the relative richness of undergraduates' fathers, or how much they would be able and willing to pay. We do know, however, what some of them pay for school education, and what Ivy League universities in the United States charge. Since the student grant is only being eroded, not abolished, we can afford to move gradually, and start with only a small increase, enabling other universities to make similar moves bit by bit. The period of transition will be lengthy, and we shall be able to alter our plans in the light of experience. But at the end of it, say in 2020 or 2035, we shall be very largely dependent for our finances on charges and fees paid by junior members. That will have a profound effect on the structure of our institutions. Rather than speculate on that, let me draw attention to two areas where we need to rethink our policies. At present we waste a lot of money on over- teaching, while at the same time underpaying a helot class to carry it out. We shall be driven by financial necessity not to give undergraduates more than one tutorial a week, and to realise that the function of a tutorial is not to cover the syllabus, but to give a pupil some first-hand experience of getting deep into one or two topics in a subject, leaving the general coverage to other forms of instruction. Also we shall need to treat those who actually do the teaching properly---to enfranchise the helots with proper fellowships, and to stop wasting tutors' time with form-filling and committees. Since we shall not be getting money from the government, we shall not need to spend time providing dubious answers to foolish questions, and shall be able to shut down the whole apparatus of appraisal and assessment. These are pluses: the minuses are mostly to be found in the sciences, where some expensive sciences cannot possibly be financed out of fee income. We do not know how philistine the government of 2020 will be. Maybe, on purely prudential grounds it will make an exception for science, and continue to provide enough money to keep the labs going. But we might be faced with not being able to afford particle physics, nuclear physics, biochemistry. Quite possibly these will be financed, but not as part of the University--- at Culham, at Harwell, at Crowmarsh Gifford. Instead of large laboratories in the Museum area, we may need to establish some sort of symbiosis with a number of peripheral institutions, separately financed, but glad to exchange ideas and collaborate with those working in a traditional university setting. At present it is not a nettle we need to grasp. But it is something we need to begin to think about, so that, as government grants diminish and money gets tighter, we know how much different forms of scientific research are costing us, and how central they are to the other activities we regard as our raison d'etre.

1. See also Access

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