Chapter 3 - Oxford’s objectives, structure, size and shape

I: Oxford's long term objectives and structure

3.1 Oxford's current objectives may be summarised as being to educate undergraduate and graduate students, to undertake research, and to provide continuing education. Oxford aspires - usually successfully - to carry out each of these activities to the highest standards, fostering and developing academic excellence across a wide range of subjects. It aims to maintain its position as one of the world's leading universities. These and other points are reflected in its current mission statement, which was originally prepared in 1991 in response to a request for such a document from the then Universities' Funding Council (UFC); a copy is provided as Appendix A to this report.

3.2 The consultative paper which we issued in February 1996 set out our working assumptions about the future structure and objectives of the University. These were as follows. (i) That Oxford should continue to teach undergraduate and graduate students, to undertake research and to provide continuing education. (ii) That its teaching should largely continue to be on a full-time residential basis. (iii) That it should continue to be a collegiate university. (iv) That it should continue to strive for the highest standards in both teaching and research. (v) That it should continue to undertake teaching and research across a wide subject range. (vi) That it should continue to be a self-governing democratic institution.

3.3 The replies to the consultative paper showed that the large majority of those who responded agreed with all these assumptions.[39] There was also a wide range of other points made arising from the assumptions. We examine those arising from the last assumption (concerning Oxford's governance) in Chapters 4 and 5 of this report, and there confirm that assumption. We comment in this chapter on the following points which arise from the other assumptions. These are:

  • The scope of Oxford's work, and the case for its continuing to undertake graduate and undergraduate teaching, research, and continuing education.
  • The nature of Oxford's degree courses.
  • Oxford as a collegiate university.

The scope of Oxford's work

3.4 Our first assumption was that Oxford should continue to undertake undergraduate teaching, graduate teaching, research and continuing education. We believe that each of these activities is closely related, and that each of them has a positive and beneficial influence on the others.

3.5 We have considered, but rejected, possible alternatives. These might include, for example, abandoning teaching undergraduates so as to concentrate on graduate teaching and research, or vice versa; or abandoning continuing education and focusing solely on full-time residential provision. However such fundamental shifts in Oxford's objectives would bring few benefits, and these would be far outweighed by the losses; nor is it clear that such changes would be practicable.

3.6 Any case for abandoning undergraduate teaching would have, for example, to meet a range of counter arguments. Oxford has a long and distinguished tradition in undergraduate provision, and the assessments conducted by HEFCE of Oxford's undergraduate education have so far concluded that the teaching of almost all the subjects considered is of very high quality. Through the provision of undergraduate education, the University brings able young people and a small number of mature students into contact with the values and disciplines, as well as the content, of rigorous academic study. Most of these students will not take up an academic career, but their experience of undergraduate study at Oxford helps to diffuse the values and approaches which underpin its academic work throughout society as a whole. If Oxford concentrated on graduate teaching and research to the exclusion of undergraduate teaching, the range of its contacts with the rest of society would become more limited. Abandoning undergraduate education would also be impracticable. Unless Oxford was to contract in size, it would need to recruit additional graduate students to replace the present 10,000 undergraduates; and unless there was a major increase in the number of graduate students in the UK, this would require Oxford to attract a much higher proportion of the general pool of graduate students than at present, which would damage graduate programmes at other universities.

3.7 Nor do we believe that there are good arguments in favour of abandoning other areas of Oxford's current activity. For example, Oxford now provides a very wide range of taught graduate courses and research degrees, which draw on the advanced resources, both physical and intellectual, available in Oxford. As we argue elsewhere in this report (in Chapter 11), there is a close relationship between teaching and research, and the two activities are usually mutually supportive. Given this, and Oxford's achievements and potential in research, we see no case in principle for curtailing graduate provision. Similar considerations apply to continuing education, where Oxford has a distinguished record of achievement dating back to the 19th century Extension movement. The modern Department for Continuing Education, now working in conjunction with Kellogg College, has developed this tradition and also diversified its work into new areas such as continuing professional development, and part-time award-bearing provision: we review these developments more fully in paragraphs 3.54-3.56 below. Given these successes and the enormous scope for drawing on Oxford's wide range of resources to develop continuing education, there is every reason to maintain and promote this work.

3.8 In concluding that Oxford should continue to undertake all the principal activities it currently conducts, we are aware that major questions are left open. Foremost amongst them is that of determining the balance of effort which should be devoted to different areas of activity. Should some subject areas be developed in addition to or at the expense of others? Should undergraduate provision be expanded at a faster rate than graduate provision, or vice versa? Should Oxford devote more of its resources (and hence of the time of its staff) to research, or more to teaching? Should some activities be scaled down in order to make room for growth in new areas? We comment on these points later in this chapter, but they do not detract from the main conclusion that Oxford should continue to undertake the four basic activities outlined above.

The nature of Oxford's degree courses

3.9 The second of our assumptions was that Oxford's teaching should largely continue to be on a full-time residential basis. As we noted in Chapter 2, recent years have seen the development of alternative forms of provision elsewhere, with part-time study increasingly popular, and growing interest in modular course structures. It is important that Oxford should be clear about how and why its own provision might differ, and how far it needs to adapt to take account of such developments.

3.10 The recommendations of the Dearing Report may be expected to lead some universities to rely less on the traditional model of the full-time three/four year residential course. That report recommends that undergraduate degree courses should become broader, should encourage students to understand their particular degree subject in its wider context, and should encourage the development of four key skills: communication skills, numeracy, the use of information technology, and the ability to learn throughout life. The report also questions whether the three year degree is the appropriate qualification for all students in a mass system of higher education, and suggests that it may not suit either the needs or the abilities of a significant number of students. Although the Dearing Report[40] does not favour the introduction of additional qualifications into higher education, it does argue for 'recognised exit points' below the level of the first degree. This might be achieved through shorter courses, which offer a worthwhile qualification after the equivalent of two years' (or six terms') study, at the end of which students would not be expected to have reached the level conventionally expected at the end of the three year full-time degree programme.

3.11 Oxford must take account of these developments, and ensure that its educational provision continues to meet the needs of students and their future employers. In particular, we believe that Oxford's undergraduate degree courses would gain from a greater degree of flexibility in the combinations of subjects which undergraduates are able to study, and we consider in Chapter 9 some ways in which such flexibility might be increased. We also consider that Oxford should devote much more explicit and structured attention than hitherto to teaching and learning methods, and should review the contribution which can be made by the use of educational technology. Our proposals in Chapter 5 for a new Educational Policy and Standards Committee of the Council address these questions. Nonetheless, we have concluded that, rather than diversify into wholly new forms of provision or fundamentally change the nature of its degree courses, Oxford should concentrate on building on its existing strengths, and seek to occupy a distinctive place in higher education rather than simply to emulate developments elsewhere.

3.12 The expanded higher education system is more diverse than its predecessor. Different institutions offer distinctive types of provision, each seeking high standards, but not necessarily aiming to meet the same objectives. Oxford has an established record in offering highly challenging intensive academic courses requiring residential provision. Its collegiate structure encourages both undergraduate and graduate students to mix with others studying in different disciplines, and to gain some appreciation of the different approaches which obtain in different areas of academic work. Such provision is valuable, and we believe that Oxford should continue to deliver it. This is not to cast doubt on other aims, nor to suggest that other forms of provision are not more appropriate for many students. It is simply to reaffirm the value of an institution which combines intensive teaching in small groups with the ambitions and resources of a major international research university.

Oxford as a collegiate university

3.13 Our third assumption about Oxford's future structure was that it should continue to be a collegiate university. There are now 39 colleges and six permanent private halls ('PPHs')[41] which are able to admit students and present them to the University for matriculation, i.e. formal admission.[42] The colleges are almost all legally independent foundations, but partnership between them and the University is essential for the work which Oxford as a whole carries out, both in teaching and research. Colleges are responsible in particular for the selection of undergraduate students; for providing them with tutorial teaching and for overseeing their academic progress; for employing staff responsible for undertaking both teaching and research; for providing board and lodging to most undergraduates and to a high proportion of their graduate students; and for providing all students (both undergraduate and graduate) with academic, social and pastoral support, including library and computing facilities, and access to travel or book grants. The quality of Oxford education depends on the resources which the colleges devote to such work. Colleges also support research, providing facilities, research fellowships, and academic salaries, and we discuss some of these points more fully in Chapter 11.

3.14 These advantages need to be sustained, and the strength and vitality of a collegiate university system maintained. We believe that this must be a high priority for Oxford in the future, notwithstanding the current uncertainties over whether the present extent of public support for college tuition fees will continue. It is inevitable that a collegiate university is more complex than a unitary one. This means that it requires some extra resources. These are the justified price of the advantages of such a system. Nevertheless, complexity needs to be minimised, and the divisions of responsibility between the colleges and the University need to be clear, particularly as they affect the operation of the joint appointments system and the organisation of undergraduate and graduate provision. We address these points in Chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10 below.


3.15 We believe that the assumptions set out in paragraph 3.2 above, which have commanded wide assent in our consultation, should form the basis of Oxford's own statement of its core aims and structure.

Recommendation 1
We recommend that Congregation should be invited by the Council formally to endorse the following six principles to govern Oxford's future development:

(i) Oxford should continue to educate undergraduate and graduate students, to undertake research and to provide continuing education.
(ii) Its education should largely continue to be on a full-time residential basis.
(iii) It should continue to be a collegiate university.
(iv) It should continue to strive for the highest standards in both teaching and research.
(v) It should continue to undertake teaching and research across a wide subject range.
(vi) It should continue to be a democratic self-governing institution.

II: Oxford's future size and shape

3.16 The last major review of the University's size and shape was conducted in 1990, at a time when the Universities' Funding Council (UFC) was planning to introduce a bidding system into the method of allocating funds for teaching, with the aim of allocating resources competitively in order to encourage rapid expansion of student numbers. The University's policy at that time was the subject of a general resolution put to Congregation on 1 May 1990, which approved a policy of limiting aggregate growth in the numbers of students in the University to one per cent per annum.[43] Council and the General Board took the view that the rate of growth in terms of student numbers which Oxford could accommodate must be curtailed both by resources, and by the physical capacity of the University, the colleges, and indeed the city to absorb additional students. At the same time it was recognised that some growth was essential, because of pressure to develop new academic areas and because of the difficulty in a university such as Oxford, where almost all subjects are highly rated, of making compensatory reductions. Numbers could not be allowed to remain static, it was argued, since this would lead to academic stagnation.

3.17 Since this policy was adopted, government policy has shifted to one of 'consolidation' of student numbers, which has in effect imposed a cap on Home/EU undergraduate student numbers since 1993-4. As a result, although Oxford's overall student numbers have continued to increase, most growth has come from additional graduate students and overseas undergraduates. The Dearing Report may herald in due course a renewed period of growth nationally, since it has recommended that the government should respond to likely long term increases in demand for higher education and should lift the cap on full-time undergraduate places over the next two or three years.

3.18 We believe that Oxford's policies on size and shape should now be reviewed, given the changed circumstances since the existing policy was formulated. It is also important to improve Oxford's capacity in future to keep its policies on these questions under review on a regular basis. We believe that our proposals for an annual planning and resource allocation cycle, to be overseen by the new Council and the three academic boards, which we set out in Chapter 5, will form an effective means of keeping such policies under review. In particular, the academic boards and the Council will be expected, through the planning cycle, to take a clear view in both the short and longer term of objectives for the future size and composition of the student body, and to consider the allocation of resources to support educational provision for them.

3.19 It will also be important to consider the mechanisms through which agreed policies can be implemented. We believe that the present system whereby colleges are responsible for undergraduate admissions should continue. However, this points to the importance of effective University/college liaison through the Joint Undergraduate Admissions Committee (JUAC), particularly since the proposed academic boards will have a close interest in the admissions targets set by colleges each year, and will need to take them into account in the annual planning and resource allocation exercise. We take up this point again in Chapter 5.

3.20 In reviewing policy on size and shape it is necessary to take into account a range of factors. In the rest of this chapter we examine seven of them, namely:

  • overall student numbers;
  • the balance between graduate and undergraduate numbers;
  • Oxford's policies on the composition of the undergraduate student body and on access;
  • Oxford's contribution to life-long learning;
  • the implications of growth in student numbers for the colleges;
  • the impact of growth in research activity;
  • the implications of growth for space and sites.

Overall student numbers

3.21 We noted in Chapter 2 that overall student numbers in Oxford increased by some 70 per cent between 1965-6 and 1995-6. The current rate of growth is running at between 1.5 and two per cent per annum, which is higher than the one per cent growth rate of the University's declared policy. Most recent growth has come from an increase in graduate student numbers, although in 1995-6 undergraduate numbers rose significantly as illustrated by Figure 3.1 below.

Figure 3.1: Changes in student numbers at Oxford, 1991-2 to 1995-6

Year  U/G nos.  % change  P/G nos.  % change  Total % change
 1991-2  10,326  -  3,962  -  14,288  -
 1992-3  10,423  + 1%  4,171  + 5%  14,594  + 2.1%
 1993-4  10,462  + 0.4%  4,276  + 2.5%  14,738  + 1%
 1994-5  10,532  + 0.6%  4,425  + 3.5%  14,957  + 1.5%
 1995-6  10,823  + 2.7%  4,413  - 0.3%  15,236  + 1.8%


Source: Gazette annual student numbers supplements

3.22 We have considered whether there is any argument for seeking a significant increase in the numbers of full-time students at Oxford, and have taken account of the responses to our consultation on this point,[44] as well as the arguments which were advanced in 1990 when the present policy was established (referred to above in paragraph 3.16). Our conclusion is that at present there is no such case.

3.23 The most important factor underlying this conclusion is the likely effect on the overall character and ethos of Oxford of any rapid or substantial change in its size. Oxford is already a large institution by UK standards, but it is fortunate in that its collegiate structure provides ample opportunity for intellectual and social interaction between its members, enabling both staff and students to gain many of the advantages of a small scale institution. We do not consider that such growth should be allowed to occur as would fundamentally alter this intellectually valuable aspect of Oxford.

3.24 Even so, a modest degree of growth is essential to allow for the development of new areas of work without having to restrict or close down existing high quality activity. For example, the University might wish to establish a new degree course in a subject for which there was strong student demand, or to broaden the scope of an existing course, or to extend its length. To do the latter by extending the length of an undergraduate course from three years to four would (unless initial intakes are to be reduced by one third) pre-suppose an overall increase in the numbers studying that particular subject. The same applies to growth measured in other ways: the University must be able to accommodate new areas of research. For this reason, we believe that a policy of allowing modest growth should be pursued, and that the present approach is broadly correct.

3.25 The implications of this current policy do, however, need to be spelt out. On the one hand, growth even at what appears to be a modest annual rate of one per cent per annum is not insignificant. Over a period of ten years, it would produce an additional 1,500 students and, as noted in our Consultative Paper of February 1996, one way of thinking of the scale of such growth is that it is the equivalent in student population terms to an additional three or four new colleges in a decade. Such growth in student numbers clearly has significant implications for space, facilities, and staff, and would influence the character of the University (and indeed of the city).

3.26 On the other hand, limiting growth to one per cent per annum also means that there will be restrictions on how far new courses and new subject areas can be developed without curtailing existing ones in order to keep overall numbers in line with the policy. One per cent growth per annum will not usually allow for all the new developments which may seem desirable; to accommodate them it might be necessary to reduce some existing activity.

3.27 In order further to illustrate the implications of this policy, we used the financial model of Oxford which we commissioned the consultants KPMG to construct for us (see paragraph 1.18, above) to explore the likely effects of different future rates of growth: details of the model, and of the assumptions on which it was based, are given in the supplementary volume to this report. Two possible scenarios were exemplified. One allowed for total annual growth of one per cent, but skewed so that there was only 0.5 per cent growth in Home/EU undergraduates, with the remaining growth coming from increases in graduate students and in overseas undergraduates. The second scenario assumed annual growth of one per cent spread evenly over all categories of students. The model suggested several conclusions, which were broadly similar in the case of both scenarios. These were:

  • after 10 years Oxford would need to have found additional resources, over and above those deriving from student fees at current levels, of between £10 million and £12 million recurrent, to pay for this growth, unless other costs were to be reduced; this might come from HEFCE block grant, but this could not be relied on;
  • some 330 additional academic staff would be required by year 10 unless the additional demand for teaching were to be met by more teaching in larger groups;
  • unless the pattern of space usage changed, additional university teaching accommodation of about 6,850 square metres would be required, some of it laboratory space. At present prices this would cost of the order of £15.1 million;
  • additional student accommodation would be required, to cater for an extra 1,600 students, at a cost of about £46 million.

3.28 If Oxford accepts the policy which we recommend it will be necessary for the Council, the proposed academic boards, and the colleges to take account of these and other factors (such as the need for the employment of additional non-academic staff, or the impact on the city) in planning for growth. As we argue in Chapter 6, the model whose results we have summarised will need to be built on and developed further by the University's administration: its main purpose at this stage is to illustrate that even apparently modest growth in student numbers can have large implications.

Recommendation 2
We recommend that, for the time being, the University should reaffirm its policy of limiting growth in student numbers to a maximum of one per cent per annum, taking one year with another. This policy should be reviewed by the Council and the academic boards once the changes in governance which we propose have been implemented; and should be kept regularly under review by these bodies, in consultation with the colleges through the Joint Undergraduate Admissions Committee, as part of the annual planning and resource allocation cycle proposed in Chapter 5 of this report.

The balance between graduate and undergraduate numbers

3.29 We have considered whether the present broad balance between undergraduate and graduate students in Oxford should change. This balance has been shifting in recent years: at the beginning of the 1980s, graduate students comprised some 23 per cent of the total student body, whereas by 1995-6 this had risen to almost 30 per cent. This reflects a buoyant demand for graduate courses, and in particular the growth in provision in the humanities and social sciences of taught graduate courses, which are proving increasingly popular, and many of which meet the research training demands of the ESRC and of the British Academy.

3.30 There are two sets of factors which need to be taken into account in considering this question: those which are internal to Oxford, and those which are external. Internal factors include the capacity of the University and the colleges to cater for each type of student and the desirability of maintaining Oxford's strong commitment to undergraduate teaching. Of external factors, one of the most significant is student demand. As we have noted, demand for graduate places has in general been buoyant in the last decade, especially for taught courses in those subject areas where a taught graduate course is seen as providing an essential preparation, beyond a first degree, for doctoral work, or as providing a valuable qualification in its own right.

3.31 Another factor which must inevitably influence Oxford's own position is national policy on graduate education, and in particular policies on the provision of financial support for graduate students from public funds. Public funding for those UK and other EU graduate students who receive it currently comes through two main routes: the HEFCE block grant, and studentships covering fees and maintenance provided by the research councils and (at present) the Humanities Research Board of the British Academy. HEFCE, in conjunction with the Committee for Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the Standing Conference of Principals, recently completed consultation on the results of a major review of its policies towards graduate provision, the Harris Report, published in May 1996.[45] The Dearing Report has endorsed many of the proposals of the Harris Report. They are likely to change aspects of graduate work, and in particular would lead towards the development of a standard nomenclature for all graduate degrees, and to changes in HEFCE's own approach to funding graduate students. The research councils and the British Academy have also in recent years reviewed their policies on the funding of graduate students, and have taken initiatives which have influenced the structure of courses and the pattern of graduate work, so that for example in the humanities and social sciences intending research students are usually required to have undertaken a taught masters' course before being eligible for public support for doctoral study. We also note that the changes in arrangements for the funding of undergraduate students being proposed in the aftermath of the Dearing Report[46] may well have a significant effect on recruitment to graduate courses: if students complete their first degrees with a substantial debt, they may be reluctant to embark on a graduate degree which could well result in yet further debts.

3.32 These points illustrate the range of factors which will influence the balance between undergraduate and graduate numbers and the uncertainty which attaches to many of them. Taken together they argue against any prescriptive policy. Certainly, we believe that there is no case at present for advocating any substantial shift from undergraduate to graduate numbers or vice versa ; this was also the preponderant view of those who responded to our consultation.[47] At present, Oxford should be pragmatic about these questions. The important point is to have in place the machinery to keep these questions regularly under review, and the mechanisms which we propose in Chapter 5 for the planning of student numbers by the proposed academic boards (in consultation with colleges, faculties and departments) will ensure that these considerations are properly taken into account in each case.

The composition of the undergraduate student body and Oxford's policies on access

3.33 One important issue in relation to the future size and shape of Oxford is that of the composition of the undergraduate student body. Four sets of issues in particular need to be addressed:

  • the relative proportions of men and women who apply and are admitted;
  • the proportions of applications from and admissions of members of ethnic minorities;
  • the proportions applying and admitted from particular socio-economic groups;
  • the proportions of pupils applying and admitted from different types of school or college.

3.34 We have not found it easy to obtain reliable or consistent data on all these points, especially data which would enable Oxford's position to be compared with the national average or with other individual universities. Good data is important because raw figures can be misleading, both because of the small numbers involved (nationally and in Oxford) in some of the categories being analysed, and also because simple comparisons can be unhelpful if they do not take account of factors such as variations in the subject mix in different institutions, variations in the types of courses offered, and an institution's geographical location. The data we have used comes primarily from Oxford's own student database and from the Universities and Colleges' Admissions Service (UCAS), but some of the conclusions we reach must be tentative because of limitations in the data we have been able to consult, as well as because of the other factors we have mentioned.

3.35 The data cited below has been compiled in order to analyse Oxford's undergraduate student body according to its gender balance, ethnic origin, socio-economic background and type of school attended. In each case we have sought to show how the position at Oxford compares with the national average. Where appropriate we have also looked at national averages for applicants with A-level scores which are comparable with those of Oxford students, since it is necessary to compare like with like in order to obtain a clear picture. It should also be noted that the figures represent averages over different periods and so are not always directly comparable: we have used what we believe to be the most representative data which is available to us.

3.36 As regards gender, figure 3.2 compares aspects of Oxford's position with the national average.

Figure 3.2: Oxford undergraduates by gender

  Oxford National average
  Male Female Male Female
% Applicants successful  34.2%  33.3%  63.3%  63.1%
 Composition of student intake   57.4%  42.6%  49.1%  50.9%


Note: Oxford figures are a 5-year average 1992-96. The national figures are a three year average 1994-1996.

3.37 As regards students from ethnic minorities , Oxford figures over the years 1992-6 show that an average of 22.3 per cent of applicants from ethnic minorities[48] were successful in their applications for admission as compared with an average of 33.8 per cent of all applicants. Ethnic minority students admitted to Oxford comprised 5 per cent of the entry. The national figures for 1996 entry show that, overall, there was a 60 per cent success rate for ethnic minority applicants compared with a success rate of 67.6 per cent for all applicants. In terms of the overall entry, ethnic minority students comprised 11 per cent but, significantly for comparisons with Oxford, they comprised 7.9 per cent of those admitted with A-level points scores in the range 26-30 points, the overall average Oxford points score on entry being 28.4.

3.38 As regards students from different socio-economic groups, data[49] is available on five broad groups and we have concentrated on the three 'lower' groups, namely applicants classified, by home background, as falling into the 'skilled' (both non-manual and manual), 'partly skilled' and 'unskilled' categories. In 1996 in Oxford, applications from students from those three groups had a 29 per cent success rate as compared with the overall Oxford success rate in 1996 of 33.8 per cent. Students from these groups entering Oxford in 1996 comprised 17 per cent of the entry. Nationally, they had a 64 per cent success rate as against an overall average of 67.6 per cent, and comprised 39 per cent of the entry.

3.39 Finally, we have considered data on the school background of undergraduate applicants and new entrants.[50] Taking a three-year average of applications to Oxford (1994-1996), there is a significant variation in the success rates of applicants depending on their educational background. For those from maintained schools and colleges, the success rate was 32.3 per cent, from independent schools, 45.6 per cent, and for those from other institutions 20 per cent. The average success rate overall for that period was 34.5 per cent. Turning to numbers actually admitted, the three-year average for Oxford was 43.2 per cent from maintained schools, 46.9 per cent from independent schools and 10 per cent in the 'other' category. The comparable statistics on a national basis are that, in the case of success rates, 78.6 per cent of those from maintained schools succeeded in their applications, as did 83 per cent from independent schools and 72.5 per cent of 'other'. In terms of actual admissions, 81 per cent came from maintained schools, 18.3 per cent from independent schools and 0.7 per cent from the 'other' category. We have also compared the Oxford figures with the national figures in 1996 for those admitted with A-level scores of 28 or more points. The latter reveal entry figures of 62.7 per cent from the maintained sector, 32 per cent from independent schools and 5.3 per cent of others.

3.40 We have drawn the following broad conclusions from this data. First, on gender, the chances of success in application by males and females differ insignificantly both within Oxford and nationally. The composition of the student body does differ markedly, suggesting that the concern in Oxford should be to attract more well-qualified women applicants. Secondly, there is some cause for anxiety over the low success rate by applicants to Oxford from some ethnic minorities, although the total numbers involved are very small, and account needs to be taken of variations between subject areas. Thirdly, we feel that the data on socio-economic background of undergraduates also gives some cause for concern, but that more analysis is required before any firm conclusions can be reached. Finally, in the case of applicants from different types of school, there is a clear difference in the various success rates when comparing Oxford with the national scene, and a clear difference between the proportions of students admitted from different educational backgrounds, even when the comparison is simply limited to those who do best at A-level.

3.41 The immediate concern which arises from this review is that Oxford could be more successful in attracting the ablest students from right across British society as a whole. This is very clear in the case of the numbers of female applicants and of applicants from the maintained sector, though less clear in relation to admission of students from the ethnic minorities or from the 'poorer' socio-economic groups. We also believe that more attention needs to be focused on the needs of disabled applicants.

3.42 We do not believe that this situation has arisen because Oxford is unwilling to try to attract such students. Oxford is an open institution and has, over the decades, made very considerable efforts to widen and deepen participation by all sections of society. Some of the steps which have been taken to try to achieve this are:

  • The development of new courses to reflect the broader-based school curriculum in order to make Oxford's courses more accessible to candidates from disparate backgrounds.
  • The targeting of ethnic minority applicants in particular, with a full-time graduate coordinator for the Access Scheme which sends ethnic minority students to target schools and to target regions in order to encourage applicants from such minorities.
  • The recent appointment of a dedicated Schools' Liaison Officer specifically to work with those maintained schools with a low record of sending applicants to Oxford, and also working with maintained school teachers to explain what Oxford has to offer.
  • The extension of the mentoring scheme for would-be maintained school applicants which enables them to spend a week 'shadowing' second year students during an Oxford term.

3.43 Oxford has also recently (in 1996) abolished the special entrance examination, one of the reasons for this decision being anxiety that it favoured those more versed in Oxford methods, and this year has established a new summer school targeted at some sixty less-advantaged potential maintained sector applicants, drawn from some 300 selected schools, which has enabled them to spend a week being taught whilst living in college in Oxford.

3.44 In addition, colleges have been doing a great deal to widen access through individual initiatives. These include open days for applicants, often targeted on particular groups such as women applicants or those who might be interested in particular subjects, especially in the field of science; events for teachers, whether open days or conferences or subject workshops; the establishment of longer-term links through schoolteacher fellowships and vacation programmes; special link schemes to foster applications from under-represented regions; and targeted subject support workshops for sixth formers. In addition, academic staff and students make a regular series of visits to schools, and there is also considerable financial support provided for needy students through college scholarship and hardship funds.

3.45 These schemes have made a valuable contribution and need to be continued and, where appropriate, expanded. They also show that Oxford has recognized the need to demonstrate that admission to the university is based on merit, and that the undergraduate admissions process puts the highest emphasis on seeking out potential, as opposed to focusing on actual achievement. It is partly for these reasons, for example, that Oxford has retained its practice of interviewing virtually every suitable candidate in order to ensure as fair an opportunity as possible for each applicant, irrespective of school or other background.

3.46 Nonetheless, we think that Oxford needs to become more successful in achieving the objective of open access for all who have the intellectual ability and aptitude to benefit from its undergraduate courses. We believe that more can be done to meet this objective, and we think that this view is widely shared within Oxford. We are conscious that the University would like to develop a number of further initiatives ideally in partnership with the Department for Education and Employment and the government. These initiatives include:

  • a systematic programme of targeting key schools in educational areas which have little record of sending pupils to Oxford.
  • new schemes designed specifically to attract a larger number suitable students from the lowest socioeconomic groups and from ethnic minorities.
  • developing the range of links which already exist with schools in order to see how Oxford academics and students could support the aims of raising standards and widening participation.

3.47 Colleges are also developing proposals for a new 'access award scheme' which would provide bursaries for applicants from the lowest socio-economic groups. The purpose of this scheme is to avoid those most likely to be discouraged from coming to university for financial or other reasons from being further inhibited by the prospect of a burden of debt, particularly in the light of the government's decision to charge fees, albeit means-tested, on those most likely to be discouraged from coming to university.

3.48 We welcome all these initiatives and believe that attention undoubtedly needs to be focused on encouraging more applications from under-represented areas. This needs to be coupled with investigation of the effectiveness of the admissions process, which will require monitoring of the subsequent academic performance at Oxford of those admitted from apparently under-represented groups, and comparing this with the average. One way forward could be to establish targets (not quotas) for progress, against which performance could be monitored. We also believe that more analysis is required of the attractiveness or otherwise of Oxford's courses to those who are under-represented amongst its undergraduate body, to ascertain how far this is a factor in deterring applications.

3.49 Taking these points forward requires better coordination between the University and its departments and faculties on the one hand, and the colleges (which have direct responsibility for undergraduate admissions) on the other. This will need to involve, amongst others, the colleges individually, the Joint Undergraduate Admissions Committee (JUAC) and the University centrally, including its Equal Opportunities Committee.

3.50 We believe that access issues should have a higher profile amongst the matters to be addressed by Oxford at large. Whilst the University has a very real and legitimate interest in this area, up to now access issues have been regarded as more a college matter than a university one. Better coordination of effort would assist in raising the profile of these important issues.

3.51 We also believe that more effective monitoring of both the current position and of the effects of individual initiatives should be undertaken. We referred earlier to the variability of the data currently available. We think it essential that data should be available to enable all the areas of concern which we have identified to be carefully monitored, to test the effectiveness of individual initiatives, and inform the development of future policy. We do not think that the present Joint Undergraduate Admissions Committee is the best body to take these questions forward, since its main responsibilities are for managing the details of the annual admissions process. We believe that a new joint university and college body, which can bring together all the relevant interests within Oxford, is required. This would be a body which was able to focus on policy development and which could take responsibility for the monitoring which we believe is required.

Recommendation 3
We recommend that the Council and the Conference of Colleges establish, jointly, a new Standing Committee on Access with membership drawn both from University bodies and from the Colleges, and to be chaired by the Vice-Chancellor in the first instance. Its primary tasks would be to coordinate current and planned activities aimed at widening access, to take forward of new initiatives to that end, to investigate the effectiveness and fairness of admissions procedures in relation to different groups, to decide on the statistical information needed to inform policy development and monitoring, and to set and monitor targets on a five-yearly basis.

Oxford's contribution to life-long learning

3.52 The general case for education being a life-long activity is now well-established, and in recent years continuing education (broadly defined) has become recognised throughout the world as making a vital contribution to economic effectiveness, to the lives of individuals, and to the well-being of society as a whole. Its importance is based on many factors, including:

  • the speed with which new knowledge is accumulated;
  • the rapid application of new ideas, particularly in technological fields;
  • the consequent impact on the economic performance of organisations and individuals;
  • the effect of these changes on the social and cultural lives of men and women, not least through the globalisation of communications.

3.53 The Dearing Report has reviewed some of these developments and argued that higher education has a major role to play in the further development of what has been termed 'the learning society', that is 'a society in which people in all walks of life recognise the need to continue in education and training throughout their working lives and who see learning as enhancing the quality of life throughout all its stages'.[51] We strongly endorse this view of the importance of life-long learning and we note that the University has done likewise in its response to the Dearing Report.[52] Especially through the work of its Department for Continuing Education and of Kellogg College, we believe that Oxford can make a major contribution to the further development of life-long learning.

3.54 The University of Oxford has a long record of pioneering developments in adult continuing education, stretching back to its innovative work in the nineteenth century Extension movement. Its work during the last twenty years has underlined the University's continuing strength in the field of continuing education, and there has been considerable growth and diversification in the provision which is made. There are now record numbers of participants in the University's continuing education programmes (some 15,000 a year); the scope of provision has been broadened to include Continuing Professional Development; new certificates, diplomas and degrees open to part-time students have been developed; and Kellogg College (formerly Rewley House) has been established to focus on the needs of continuing education students.

3.55 The University should seek to give more people access to education and scholarship of the quality associated with Oxford, and to develop courses which increase accessibility and enhance opportunities for life-long learning. In so doing it will need to respond to the needs of business, industry and the professions, as well as to the needs of individual students, and to strengthen its links, through life-long learning opportunities, with the wider community locally, nationally and internationally. We see such developments as having an integral part in Oxford's future.

The implications of growth for colleges

3.56 We have considered the implications of any future policy on growth for the colleges of Oxford. As noted earlier in this chapter, the growth in student numbers which has occurred in the last thirty years has to some extent been accommodated by the foundation of new colleges, but the bulk of it has been absorbed by existing ones, which on average have significantly increased in size. Overall, our view is that for the present this laissez-faire policy in regard to the future development of colleges should be followed, rather than adopting an explicit policy of expanding existing colleges or of founding new ones to cope with future growth.

3.57 On the other hand, there are clearly major questions which the colleges will need to address. As many colleges face increasingly difficult financial circumstances, there is pressure to increase student numbers in order to boost fee income. At a time when there are externally imposed constraints on numbers of Home/EU undergraduates, this pressure has in some cases manifested itself through the recruitment of additional Visiting Students or 'associate students'[53] who do not count against external constraints on numbers, but whose presence nevertheless places demands on university and college resources. It may be that pressures of this kind will lead to a further general increase in the size of colleges, in which case growth of one per cent a year over, say, twenty years could be accommodated. If not, and a point is reached at which colleges are unwilling to expand to accommodate a planned rate of growth, then clearly consideration would need to be given to the foundation of new colleges. Different considerations might, of course, apply if current arrangements for the support of college fees from public funds were to change.

The growth of research

3.58 So far we have considered Oxford's growth largely in terms of student numbers. It is equally important, however, to consider growth in terms of research activity, since this has a very significant impact on the size and shape of Oxford and on demand for resources, including space and sites.

3.59 We noted in Chapter 2 the rapid rate of growth in the real value of the University's external research grant and contract income in the last thirty years, growth which has been especially swift since 1990. This source of income now comprises almost 33 per cent of the University's total income. We are concerned that the University has not fully thought through the implications of these developments. We consider some of these issues in Chapter 11, but in the present context we wish to draw attention to the impact which changes in the volume of research activity can have on Oxford's size and shape, and to emphasise the need to review this rate of growth.

3.60 In order to illustrate our concerns, we have used the financial model prepared for us by KPMG, referred to above in paragraph 3.27. We used the model to explore some of the likely effects of various possible future rates of growth in external research grant and contract income, other things being equal. Our objective was not to demonstrate whether such growth is or is not desirable, but to try to identify the policy choices which need to be faced, and to clarify the issues which need to be dealt with, if such growth does occur.

3.61 We used the model to illustrate the impact of three different annual rates of growth in external research income over a period of twenty five years. It was assumed that growth would occur across all subject areas and that requirements for space, staff and other resources would grow proportionately; these other resources include support from the University's own funds to support those elements of externally funded research projects, the costs of which are not fully covered by the project funding. The three different rates of growth which were used for illustration were:

  • five per cent per year (option 1)
  • ten per cent per year (the recent growth rate) (option 2)
  • fifteen per cent per year (option 3)

3.62 The first point which the model makes clear is that, for each rate of growth, considerable deficits will build up unless resources can be found to cover those elements of the project work which are not supported by the project funding. Figure 3.2 illustrates this point, and shows that the University would have to find additional funding of the orders of magnitude in Figure 3.3 to cover those elements in the costs of externally funded research which, under present funding arrangements, are not covered by the project funding.

Figure 3.3: Implications of various rates of growth used in the KPMG model


   Annual deficit after 10 years
Option 1 (5% cent growth)     
Option 2 (10% growth)
Option 3 (15% growth)
£31 million
£84 million
£166 million


3.63 The model also illustrates some of the other effects of continued growth along current lines. For example, under option 2 (a continuation of the recent rate of growth of 10 per cent per annum), a further ten years' growth at that rate would have a major impact on Oxford's size and shape. By year 10, a number of changes would have occurred. Externally funded research would account for 73 per cent of Oxford's total expenditure; humanities and social sciences would between them account for 18 per cent of spending (at present the figure is 30 per cent); 57 per cent of all staff employed on teaching or research or both would be contract researchers (at present the figure is 39 per cent); requirements for additional space would exceed 130,000 square metres. Each of these points is illustrated more fully in the KPMG report in the supplementary volume to this report.

3.64 Clearly the University needs to take action to deal with the effects of continued trends of this sort. One option would be to increase the proportion of the indirect costs of externally funded research which are recovered from research funding bodies, and the Dearing Report[54] encourages universities to make more effort to do this. The KPMG model shows that increasing the current overhead recovery rate on externally funded research to an appropriate level could generate sufficient additional sums to provide all the additional funding required to cover the costs of the growth in externally funded research, and also to make a contribution to the University's overall funds. However, it is well known that full recovery of overhead costs is a difficult task.

3.65 Our conclusion is that continuation of the present rate of growth in external research grant and contract income is unsustainable, so long as the income does not cover the full costs of the activity which it supports because (if nothing else) it will absorb an increasing and unjustifiable proportion of the University's other resources, including academic staff time. This does not mean that the University should simply seek to reduce the rate of growth in external research grant and contract income; rather, the implications of such growth need to be rigorously evaluated, to ensure both that the increase in activity being supported by such grants is properly funded, and that the effects of such a level of growth in research income on the allocation of resources to other areas of activity and on the University's overall size and shape are properly considered.[55] Our conclusion is that improvements in this area will most effectively be achieved through changes in the University's mechanisms for considering such questions, which highlights the importance of our proposals for changes in governance contained in Chapter 5.

Implications of growth for space and sites

3.66 Any decision to allow Oxford to grow, albeit slowly and in an effectively managed way, and to accept continuing changes in the ratios of undergraduate to graduate students and between different categories of staff, carries significant implications for the availability and use of space and sites both by the University and by colleges. Considering first the University's position, we welcomed the decision by Hebdomadal Council in May 1995 to establish a Working Party on University Sites, chaired by the Master of Balliol College, Dr Colin Lucas, (now the Vice-Chancellor). We have had the opportunity to consider the report of this Working Party, which was submitted to Hebdomadal Council in July 1997 and subsequently published in the Gazette. [56] The report surveyed likely future needs of the University (but not the colleges) for space, and made recommendations for the acquisition of sites by the University to meet expected future demands. One difficulty faced by the Working Party, however, was that it was inhibited in making accurate forecasts of needs because it was 'unable to identify a strategic plan for the University's activities over the next 20 years upon which it might base a projection of requirements for space'. In the absence of such an overall plan, the Working Party made its own assumptions by extrapolating from recent trends, and also asked faculties and departments to predict their own long term future needs for space.

3.67 We have drawn three main conclusions from the Working Party's report in the context of our own consideration of Oxford's future size and shape.

3.68 The first is that the report provides a comprehensive analysis of currently perceived needs of the University for space and sites over the next decade or so. The report accepts that both the need for new sites and their availability will change over time. We agree and have concluded that an analysis of this kind needs to be repeated at intervals.

Recommendation 4
We recommend that the Council should initiate a broad review of future needs for space and sites on a five yearly basis.

3.69 Secondly, the report provides additional evidence of the need for a better overall approach to academic and resource planning in Oxford. The absence of coherent plans for academic activity, to which attention was drawn by the Working Party, clearly illustrates a weakness in Oxford's current planning machinery. We argue this point in more detail in Chapter 4, but mention it here since the difficulty of planning the use of space provides a good example of the problems which a deficiency in planning structures can bring. We believe that this deficiency can be overcome by the new planning machinery which is proposed in Chapter 5, and that (as in other areas of Oxford's work) these proposals will make it much easier to make decisions about requirements for resources, including space.

3.70 Thirdly, it is also important that Oxford's future needs for space are considered as a whole, taking both the University and the colleges together. This points to the importance of close cooperation between university bodies responsible for these matters (which under our proposals in Chapter 5 would be the Buildings Committee, and the academic boards) and college representatives. The proposed Deputy Vice-Chancellor for academic services, described in Chapter 5, will play a key role here in liaising with colleges and ensuring that a coordinated approach is taken.