An ‘Oxbridge obsession’?
The British university mission group Million+, which perhaps slightly awkwardly describes itself as a ‘think tank’, has issued a pamphlet in which it expresses its doubts about the British government’s higher education policy for England. The chief concern of the group relates to the policy of trying to secure the admission of some talented students from lower income groups into the higher ranking universities, which Million+ believes could compromise the capacity of its member institutions (which are all post-1992 universities) to have a rather greater impact in bringing disadvantaged students into higher education.
Anyway, what struck me in all of this was the call in the pamphlet for the government to ‘move beyond the Oxbridge obsession’. What the group means, presumably, is that governments and others spend too much time trying to secure access to Oxford and Cambridge and to fund these institutions excessively, neglecting the contribution made by other more modest institutions.
There may be a bit of special pleading in the pamphlet, but there are also some points worth making. On the one hand, if the ‘Oxbridge obsession’ is shorthand for a focus on excellence and a desire to ensure that a reasonable cross-section of the general population can experience higher education as offered in the best endowed institutions, then there is at least something to be said for it. But if it expresses the view that the Oxbridge model of higher education is the only model that has the capacity to deliver world leading education, then we should pause to think. It is probably true that the Oxbridge model is similar to that adopted by some of the other heading universities of the world, such as Harvard and Princeton, but on the other hand it is quite different from that of other global leading institutions such as MIT and Caltech.
The risk in all of this is to the idea of higher education diversity. On this side of the Atlantic there is some acceptance in theory of diversity, but in practice the assumption appears to be that only one kind of university can strive to be world class (whatever that means). That is not good for the system, however. Diversity of mission is important for all sorts of reasons and should be encouraged, not as a way of identifying a hierarchy of excellence, but as a way of meeting different social, cultural and economic needs. But within that setting universities should still strive to be excellent and to produce outcomes in teaching and research that can challenge the best in the world. That should ultimately be the goal of all universities.