Opening up Oxbridge

Last week I went to see the brilliant theatre production Hamilton in London. The cast perform eight shows a week and tickets are sold out months in advance within hours as soon as they are released.

Imagine if they cut half of the productions and closed their doors for half the year, it would be madness! But that’s exactly what’s happening in Britain’s elite universities. The actors in Hamilton don’t take six months of holiday so why should we settle for less when it comes to the UK’s best academic institutions?

Oxford and Cambridge Universities currently operate three terms consisting of only eight weeks each – a total of 24 weeks throughout the entire calendar year. These colleges exist purely to educate first and foremost so there is a huge missed opportunity here to diversify the student body and double the number of undergraduate places across 48 weeks of teaching – with four weeks of holidays still to spare.

To me, this seems an obvious solution to a growing problem at Oxbridge recently highlighted in a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). The report shows that many other leading universities have grown rapidly, some by more than half, while the number of students at Cambridge has risen by only 4% and Oxford’s own figures suggest an even more modest increase of 2%.

This comes at a time of growing scrutiny on Oxford and Cambridge’s applications process following freedom of information requests to uncover the number of undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures show that between 2012 and 2016, six of Cambridge’s 29 undergraduate colleges admitted fewer than 10 black British or mixed-race students, while eight of Oxford’s 29 colleges accepted fewer than three black applicants in the past three years.

In the report, Nick Hillman, director of HEPI, published his ideas for diversifying Oxbridge’s student body. He argues that opening new colleges is the preferred solution. However, Professor Graham Virgo, pro-vice-chancellor for education at Cambridge, disagrees. He claims that the university’s “biggest problem is convincing people they should apply and making it clear to them that they are welcome here.” He questions “what message about inclusivity would be sent out by setting up a new college for this purpose?”

With Cambridge dragging its heels and Oxford releasing its own statement that it has “no plans to expand overall undergraduate numbers or create new colleges”, there seems to be something of a stalemate.

My solution would double the number of semesters, effectively increasing the number of undergraduates two-fold without even having to lay another brick.

Resistance may come in the form of academics who use the time for research projects or from businesses who use the space for commercial reasons during the holidays. However, there is legitimate cause to argue that the colleges should instead refocus their priorities on education.

It is well known that Oxbridge is oversubscribed – with more than 19,000 people applying for around 3,200 undergraduate places at Oxford alone, there is certainly the demand for this; and by hiring twice as many academics or offering significant pay increases to those willing to double their workload, the supply can be raised to meet the demand and make more of the existing university infrastructure.

But the opportunity isn’t just limited to income for the universities. The extra capacity created would provide more students with access to the high-quality education they and our society needs. My view is that this could greatly improve opportunities for poorer British students and ethnic minorities and would help to redress the imbalance at the core of Britain’s best universities.

The difficulty is that there’s no single decision point. There’s no one realistically with the power to implement this kind of change. Let’s make it a national priority to educate and let’s make high quality education more accessible to all.

Few organisations in the world have the good fortune to be able to double their income through a single change to their business model. I’m sure the producers of Hamilton wouldn’t pass up such an opportunity, so why should Oxbridge?