Why Cambridge University should go private

Since the end of World War II, top British universities have experienced relative decline in the international league tables. Most especially, the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford have really struggled against top private universities in the United States: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago and Stanford. The reasons, of course, are (1) that no government agency can compete on even terms against a private counterpart and (2) that government funding of Oxford and Cambridge has simply not matched the private funding of the top US universities.

English universities are now about to experience a revolution in their relationship with government. This week the coalition government is expected to announce cuts of 80% in government funding for undergraduate instruction. At the same time, caps are expected to be lifted from the tuition fees that universities are allowed to charge the undergraduate student population. But with one serious proviso. Once fees move above £6,000 per annum, universities will be required to return a large proportion of the excess fees to the Treasury.

For many universities, the new arrangement will allow them to plod on at a mediocre performance level. And no shock waves are expected. For Oxford and Cambridge, however, this is not the case. Educating an undergraduate at those universities, in the collegiate tradition, costs around £18,000 pounds per annum. Even now, the government funds less than 50% of this cost. Government funds only 18% of the overall costs of these universities.

Significantly privatised as they have become, Cambridge (and surely Oxford will follow) is apparently considering removing itself completely from government funding. By so doing, it would release its admissions officers from strangling equity rules that force it to accept a rising number of students who are not top-ranked. They will be free to take whomsoever they wish, offering bursaries to less well-off candidates, much as is the case in the US.

Much more important, as private ventures (albeit non-profit in nature) they will attract market-oriented faculty and will adopt market-oriented curricula. Inevitably, they will show ever cleaner sets of heels over their stumbling bureaucratic competitors. Ultimately, their success may take all the top universities in England into the private sector. And then the US leaders will truly have to step up if they are to retain their international dominance.

Since public choice scholars rarely consider that governments act in error, the presumption must be that the current British government desires this outcome, and relishes the effective denationalisation of what used to be one of England’s best performing industries.


An earlier version of this article appeared on Charles Rowley’s blog.

4 thoughts on “Why Cambridge University should go private”

  1. Posted 19/10/2010 at 10:58 | Permalink

    The notion that politicians can foresee the consequences of their acts is audacious, but probably mistaken.

    Did the Labour government really intend the Royal Navy to end up with two aircraft carriers which would not accommodate any aircraft?

    Have postwar governments really planned that about twenty per cent of pupils emerging from more than a decade of ‘tuition’ in state schools would be unable to read, write or do simple sums?

    Was it expected all along that among commercial airlines Concorde would attract no customers at all?

    Has government monetary management been aiming to reduce the pound’s purchasing power by well over 95 per cent within a couple of generations?

    I don’t think so.

  2. Posted 19/10/2010 at 12:55 | Permalink

    Generally quite good – however, there are no “strangling” equity rules. Oxford and Cambridge admit exclusively on ability. Tutors are solely responsibility for picking the students they teach. They already take whoever they wish…

  3. Posted 19/10/2010 at 13:16 | Permalink

    There is a pitfall about ‘marketising’ universities, though I agree they should all be privatised. Universities should not be profit-seeking businesses but autonomous communities of scholarship in pursuit of knowledge which is capable of being its own end. Some of this knowledge is economically useful, not all of it is, and should not be valued on a commercial basis.

    However, I do believe that academic standards at universities ought to be raised to a worthy level so that only the brightest and best can benefit from a university education. Of these, the only people who should attend are: (a) those rich enough to not have to work; and (b) those who can get graduate jobs when they leave.

  4. Posted 06/07/2012 at 08:39 | Permalink

    If Cambridge is going to compete against top Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, they should definitely change their reputation as the “government-funded public schools” to the “self-held up elite private schools”. Even though that they say that Cambridge University tops Harvard and MIT in the league ranking, the reputation of the Ivy League schools seem more (?) “elite, top” (?) than Oxford or Cambridge.

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