On Campus

The Hollowed Halls

How government cuts threaten Oxford and Cambridge’s unique teaching style

In 1945, Evelyn Waugh famously depicted Oxford in his classic novel Brideshead Revisited as a place where young people spend their days “twittering and fluttering over the cobbles and up the steps, sightseeing and pleasure-seeking, drinking claret cup, eating cucumber sandwiches.” Six-and-a-half decades later, things in the whimsical college town are far less civilized. Oxford University students spent much of the fall term staging angry protests, gathering in town by the hundreds to demonstrate against the government. Meanwhile, at its historic rival Cambridge, a 21/2-hour train ride away, students are equally fired up. After a number of boisterous marches in November, about 1,000 students staged an 11-day occupation of a university building. At issue is Britain’s massive new austerity package, which includes an 80 per cent cut to higher education teaching grants by 2012, and a potential tripling of tuition fees. The protests were “a wake-up call,” says Tom, a Cambridge Ph.D. student and one of the occupation organizers, who spoke with Maclean’s on the condition of anonymity. “The things the government are calling for seem extreme,” he says. “And extremely dangerous to education.”

Protests have taken place across Britain. But students at Oxford and Cambridge are motivated by a more pressing fear: that the new cuts will end the centuries-old reign of the institutions collectively called Oxbridge. Some are afraid the famed Oxbridge “tutorial system” is in jeopardy. Since their conception, Oxford and Cambridge have dismissed the traditional lecture system. Instead, undergrads are taught largely through one-on-one “tutorials” with professors. In between the weekly or fortnightly meetings, students work through massive reading lists, and write papers to later discuss with their tutors. “It makes the best use of bright students,” says David Palfreyman, an Oxford tutor and editor of The Oxford Tutorial. Students at the two schools work harder—10 to 15 hours a week more than average students, he says—“because [they] can’t escape in the tutorial system.” And it teaches them to think more creatively; many papers aren’t formally assessed, so students “can be a bit adventurous.”

It certainly attracts some keeners. David Barclay, an Oxford undergrad and president of the student union, says the tutorial system was one of the things that drew him to Oxford from Scotland, where he grew up. “It’s the best way of teaching,” he says. “One-on-one interaction with the best minds in the world.” At a coffee shop near the history department, Barclay recounts some particularly memorable classes, including one on 20th-century political history taught by a sitting member of Parliament. “Tutorials can be pretty scary,” he grinned. “But I love them.”

But will tutorials—and with them, Oxbridge’s international standing—ride the wave of public cuts? “The tutorial system is absolutely wonderful,” says Phil Baty, deputy editor of the London Times Higher Education World University Rankings. “But it is extremely expensive. And the universities have really struggled to maintain it.”

Currently, university tuition in Britain is capped at $5,150. Since it costs far more to teach students one-on-one, Oxford and Cambridge have relied on teaching funds from the government. As well, says Baty, the schools subsidize the system, likely to the tune of $8,000 to $9,000 a year per student.

But come 2012, almost all of the public money for university teaching will be gone. To address the shortfall, the government will allow universities to raise fees—up to $14,000 in as-of-yet-unspecific “exceptional” circumstances. This amounts to a near tripling of tuition. But administrators say the tuition hikes may not be enough. According to Andrew Hamilton, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, it costs $25,000 a year to teach an undergrad at Oxford. “If we believe strongly that the tutorial system is the best way to nurture maturing minds,” says Hamilton, “we are going to have to find ways of making it more financially sustainable.”

Also hurting Oxbridge is the scrapping in 2009 of the Historic Buildings Fund, which was set up to dole out money to preserve the nation’s prized architecture, but has gone disproportionately to keeping Oxford and Cambridge’s buildings well kept. “With [the cut],” says Barclay, “died any acknowledgment, subtle or unsubtle, about the special nature of Oxford and Cambridge in public life in Britain.”

The irony of the precarious position that Oxbridge now finds itself in thanks to government cuts is not lost on critics. Many point out that 70 per cent of the British cabinet was educated at Oxbridge. Twenty per cent of the cabinet and 35 members of the House of Commons took Oxford’s famed philosophy, politics and economics degree, dubbed “the surest ticket to the top” by the BBC. (Graduates include British Prime Minister David Cameron, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.)

Of course, the tutorial system isn’t all that keeps Oxbridge afloat. But it helps. Its standing in the Times ranking, Baty says, is boosted by its unmatched student-faculty ratio and intense learning environment. It’s also one of the biggest draws for international students, at a time when Britain’s share is declining. Tim Hands, an Oxford headmaster, recently bemoaned: “There is no doubt that parents are increasingly interested in the prestige of an American university as an alternative to a British one. Now the chief barrier, that of cost, looks as though it may disappear.”

Still, some insist the cuts will actually be a step in the right direction: toward privatization. For years, administrators at the two schools have issued barely masked threats to break free from state control, particularly over the issue of tuition caps. “It is surely a mad world,” Oxford chancellor Lord Chris Patten has remarked, “in which parents and 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 [$4,500] when they are here.” Even some students are sympathetic. One Oxford graduate student who preferred not to be named was adamant: “If students don’t believe their education is worth more than a few thousand pounds, they should think about what they’re doing at university.”

The crux of the problem, says Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, is that Britain has struck an unhappy marriage between state control and market control of higher education. Until 1998, education in Britain was free. Since then, the state has held tuition artificially low. And yet, Britain’s public spending on higher education ranks near the bottom of OECD countries: 0.7 per cent of GDP in 2007, compared to 3.1 per cent in the U.S. and 2.6 per cent in Canada. The result is that top schools must rely heavily on philanthropic donations to maintain their education standards: a system that may not be sustainable.

The government also limits the number of students that universities can accept—largely because every undergraduate, regardless of family income, is entitled to state-subsidized loans. Those loans, says Claire Callender, professor of higher education at University College London, cost the government around £30 for every £100 borrowed. So, in effect, the government must be prepared for all students—even, Callender says, “the kids of millionaires”—to draw on government aid.

The new system may help correct these long-standing ills. Top schools like Oxbridge, which will likely command the maximum $14,000, might see some financial gain. And though tuition will increase for most, children from the lowest-earning families may actually see theirs go down, as subsidies for the poorest students are expanded.

But for Cambridge’s Tom, this higher education experiment is not worth the risk. “I’m afraid,” he says, “that my discipline, in 10 years’ time, will be little more than a finishing school for the rich.” But how best to decide what’s fair? That debate, wrote the Telegraph’s Neil O’Brien last month, sounds like the kind worthy of a “chin-stroking philosophy tutorial at Oxbridge.”

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