Oxford University is a survivor. It was founded around the year 1100, although no one knows for sure and began to cater to the needs of religious orders. It grew rapidly after 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. Oxford knows how to take advantage of opportunities.

Next year, Oxford will face the biggest fiscal challenge, of its long and trying history. For nearly a century Oxford’s budget has come from the British government and its services were free for students. Education had always been considered a public good in England and Oxford, with the most distinguished alumni (or as they are called old members) in the English speaking world, was free of charge until 1998. That year they began to charge students £1000 a year.

Slowly, government support for this cultural icon continued to diminish and the recent economic crisis has completed the job. In 2012 Oxford will loose an estimated seventy eight percent of its government support. It can increase its tuition to a maximum of £9,000 a year and if it does, it will have shifted its cultural role, from a public good to a private good.

Oxford is trying to remain open to all economic classes who qualify to attend. Their strategy to do this is to raise a bigger endowment. Oxford is no stranger to this activity. For a thousand years it has rattled its tin cup in front of medieval courts, peers of the realm and cathedrals. It now has around £5 billion in its kitty, but like all endowments, theirs is committed, long term, to the donors’ objectives. Comparatively speaking Oxford’s endowment is small, a fifth of Harvard’s, a third of Yale’s.

In order to do this, they hired themselves a new Vice Chancellor, an Englishman with American academic experience and convincing fundraising skills. Quickly they charted a path toward increasing their endowment by £1.95 billion (because, I guess, two billion pounds sounds like a lot more), through its old members.

One of those is my favorite “Oxolean”, the television chef Nigela Lawson (Lady Margaret Hall), walked its halls as did two British kings and twelve monarchs of ten other sovereign states, twenty-five British prime ministers, and thirty-five presidents and prime ministers of nineteen other countries. There are twelve saints, ten blesseds, and an antipope; twenty-five princes and princesses, thirty-four dukes, nineteen marquesses, eighty-two earls and countesses, forty-six viscounts and viscountesses, and 188 barons and baronesses; 246 bishops (Anglican and Catholic); 291 Members of Parliament (excluding MPs who were subsequently peers), eleven Members of the European Parliament (excluding MEPs also serving at Westminster), twelve Lord Chancellors, nine Lord Chief Justices and twenty-two law lords; ten US Senators, ten US Representatives (including a Speaker of the House), three state governors, and four associate justices of the US Supreme Court; as well as six puisne justices of the Supreme Court of Canada and a chief justice of the now defunct Federal Court of Canada. According to Wikepedia.

Not all of those Oxoleans are alive but of those who are, Oxford wants to double their participation in giving to the University, from the current fifteen percent to thirty percent, more along the lines of Yale.

This shift in funding constitutes a major culture-change, not just for Oxford, but for all universities in England. Unfortunately for the others, none can match Oxford’s list of endowment prospects. For major colleges and universities there is little choice but to streamline its operation and shift the burden to the students. It is easy to imagine, although hard to calculate, the eventual economic and social impact of this massive shift. We imagine that the uncertainty of living on the dole, will effect a dramatic change in the way the universities plan and grow. Some new things, which donors are willing to support but may not be the highest priority for the universities, will take root and this will lead in unpredictable directions.

There will be fewer opportunities to grant access to the children of the poor. They, the untitled and unconnected, once formed a great community of learning at Oxford and are among its highest achievers. The Rhodes scholars to whom the world owes much, will continue to come to Oxford, but the question is, who will they find there? What will they find there? No one knows for sure, but I imagine the experience will include a close look at that shinny new tin cup.

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