If the University of Oxford were a stock, I would short it.
As tuition fees across the world continue to spiral upwards, attending university in of itself is one of the greatest initial investments that young adults make in their lives. It seems that everyone has something to say about the value of Uni. Your friends tell you to appreciate the experiences you will make, society tells you that it’s a rite of passage following secondary education, economists warn you of the opportunity costs of going, Peter Thiel’s telling you to drop out altogether and join his fellowship, and other entrepreneurs are singing the same song.
Looking past all the romanticised reasons one might attend university, higher education ultimately remains an optional, final stage of formal learning, that provides labourers with the skillsets they need for a market that demands college graduates. When your opportunity cost is higher than the value of Uni: that is, when you’re on the fringe of producing Facebook, a rational thinker drop’s out, even if the university in question happens to be Harvard.
A little bit of a depressing perspective, but no different from the one you would get out of a macroeconomics textbook, and one that bears the truth. While individuals might make subjective economic choices regarding their university, they eventually join a unified entity of their choice that becomes their home for the next three or four years.
You may be a member of St. Edmund Hall or a fellow of Pembroke College, but at the end of the day, you are an Oxonian. To this degree, I analyse whether or not in purely economic terms, the great, dark blue umbrella that is Oxford, would be worth investing in on the whole. I find that Oxford does have a place in my portfolio—when I’m betting against it.
In a world where everybody has something to offer, the starting salaries of Oxford graduates lag. The average annual starting salary of Oxford’s recent graduates is £27,000 per annum. At Rice University in Texas, a university that few undergraduates at Oxford would know, the average starting salary of graduates is almost double that of Oxford grads, ranging from £46,000 on the lower bound to £56,000 on the upper bound.
Harvey Mudd College, a small liberal arts college in California, graces its undergraduates students with a median salary of nearly £60,000 after graduation. A difference in British living costs is to be expected, but even after factoring relative prices of expenses, Oxford graduates are grossly undervalued.
Even given Oxford’s low tuition rate, scoring in at 9,250 pounds for all “Islands” students, which is minuscule in comparison to the massive tuition fees of American universities, which border on 70,000 USD per year, this difference in salaries translate to much bigger differences in lifetime earnings. In addition, the price of Oxford’s tuition is deceptive. As a result, Oxford offers far fewer free services, including things like housing, and food, which are typically included in American university tuition fees.
In addition, for a place that produced Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile under four minutes, Oxford’s athletic facilities, relative to American athletic facilities, are pathetic. The hardworking staff at Iffley are not to blame, but rather the lack of money put into the facilities in general. Instead, the offsetting of the facilities by the University to rely on individual subscription money to fund their own expenses has turned out poorly.
A significant cause of Oxford’s lower annual starting salary is the failure to adequately, or even actively, promote its STEM students. The Times Higher Education ranking system has ranked Oxford as number one in the latest World University Rankings–a ranking that the university has gladly embraced and publicised on its home website. Oxford has also been ranked top in four subjects by the QS World University Rankings by subject.
However, the four subjects are Anatomy and Physiology, Archeology, English Language and Literature, and Geography. In this country, where a second class degree in Geography can pave the road to becoming Prime Minister, it might certainly seem acceptable. But in a globalising world that will continue to globalise no matter how many people vote Leave, it is clear that the future is demarcated by students of STEM. Oxford’s lack of an emphasis on STEM makes it a poor investment. STEM is a class that is largely defined by its high paying salary field classification. Even among the Tab’s recently ranked women to watch at Oxford, not a single ranked member was a student of a STEM field. A comparison to any single Ivy League power ranking list, or even lower American college ranking list, is important.
Most leaders will be women who are pioneering in truly male dominated fields–engineering, biotech, entrepreneurship, finance, where they face extreme gender ratios. I have to admit my disappointment at the list, as I know many women at Oxford who, in my opinion, are more worth watching for their truly groundbreaking work.
Earlier in Michaelmas, Maya Lorey, a visiting student at Oxford from Stanford, wrote about “Stanford’s different standards”. She discussed the different attitudes that the academic communities in Oxford and Stanford respectively have towards the humanities, as opposed to the dominance of STEM at Stanford.
I agree with everything she says: Oxford’s attitude towards the humanities has far more humanity, and appreciates it outside of being a tool towards a next job. But I believe that this appreciation has turned to near slacking. In addition to the low starting salaries of Oxford graduates, Oxford students are unlikely to seek work experience in internships, and the OUIP system lacks breadth.
As a result, we generally enter the working environment with less experience, fewer credentials, and a less competitive ego. The general attitude at Oxford is very accepting of this much more ‘chill’ atmosphere, but in real terms, an appreciation for a lack of competition does not transfer into positive results.
As I said earlier, in an increasingly globalised world, where employment is a zero sum game and schools like Maya’s show no sign of disappearing o the map, this rosy perception has its merits, but also its very real consequences. The less competitive students of Oxford will also be chosen second to the hyper-competitive students of Stanford.
It doesn’t help that a recent YouGov survey revealed that 76 per cent of European academics in the UK said they were more likely to consider leaving UK higher education as a result of Brexit. I wouldn’t blame them: if you were an Oxford computer science student, and you had a choice between working in the palm tree laden Silicon Valley, or staying in Oxford, even a hundred Tim Berners Lee’s could not be convincing enough.
In terms of our overall categorisation of Oxford, the appreciation and historical value of humanities at Oxford isn’t at the behest of the mercy of the shrinking global valuation for the humanities. Oxford should not cling onto old ideas that have made Oxford special in the past, because we no longer live in the past.
Maybe Oxford is special. Maybe I should buy into Oxford, because they operate in a niche market that can’t be bested by any of the other choices in the university market. After all, there is no other place in the world like Oxford, and that, I can truly accept.
Where else in the world can you justify degrees that have zero lectures for months at a time, with two to three hours of tutorial time being the only class-time per week? Only at Oxford. Oxford moulds their courses and their direction of student academic life with very little guidance, operating on the idea that students should become independent learners who focus and dedicate their time to their overtly specific degrees.
But is this the right direction to take? Specialisation has long been touted as an effective method in higher education, and in industries in general. There is no doubt that Oxford produces highly specialised students: after all, the degree system leaves Oxford students studying nothing but the span of subjects covered by their degree for a whole three or four years.
To this, I believe that Oxford cannot keep hiding behind the same facetious, denial-swamped, delusional excuse that ‘that’s what makes Oxford special’. The continued system of specialised degrees, that do not offer, or require, students to take courses in other subjects or to study foreign languages, is extremely detrimental to what is supposed to be the production of the brightest crop of students in Great Britain.
Schools like Stanford and Harvard teach students to build from zero to one: Oxford teaches students to build from one to n. That is to say, the culture of those universities, as opposed to Oxford, is strongly entrenched in ideas of creation, invention, entrepreneurship, and a coverage of a variety of abilities. Whereas, the academic focus at Oxford is laser sharp on the revision of existing material (usually that of Oxford authors promoted from within department reading lists).
At Oxford, doing a degree is enough. Outside of Oxford, doing your degree does not even come close to the bare minimum. This is not necessarily a bad thing if you want to become a professor in the future. But it is not a coincidence that Facebook started at Harvard, and not at Oxford.
Ben Sasse, a junior Senator from the state of Nebraska, puts things into perspective surprisingly well in an editorial he writes for the Wall Street Journal titled ‘The Challenge of Our Disruptive Era’. In it, he argues that, given we live in a context where college-educated employed adults are expected to cycle through more than five industries within their lifetimes, broader education is necessary in all tiers of education.
That is, in a modern world, Oxford must change its focuses if it wants to remain in its dominant position in higher education, and certainly do so if it wants to ever come close to amassing the endowments of American universities.
The university doesn’t even have a mascot. Oxford does have the Oxford Blue, Pantone 282, and a very dark tone of azure that serves as the official colour of the University of Oxford. This lack of a mascot at Oxford points towards something larger: the lack of a unifying identity.
Generally, there are two prevailing systems of higher education: small liberal arts colleges of one to two thousand students that focus on providing concentrated communities and the formation of close relationships, and universities, which are much larger and expansive in nature. Oxford, seemingly unable to decide on one or the other, has a strange, disfigured combination of the two.
Students either resign to insular college life, or get involved in broader university life, only to be constantly questioned on their absence from college in their attempt to leave the five hundred square metres. This mix has caused Oxford to become the child who has moved 17 times before he turned 17, lost, without a real identity and a place to hold onto.
Arguably, this loss of identity has contributed to an equally huge loss in alumni donations to Oxford, or even individual colleges. Inarguably, the alumni donor culture and the strong ‘connection’ to the alma mater is nowhere near as powerful as it is at American universities, at Oxford. In the lack of a strong identity to hold onto, and even big games with huge crowds to come back to, alumni gatherings are a rare sight in the Oxford summer.
While the green may be present in the leaves, no green goes into the pockets of Oxford’s endowment. Despite reporting by Cherwell last week referencing Oxford’s topping of a UK university donations list, I could only help but laugh. Even with their relative ranking, Oxford’s donations were dwarfed by schools in the US like Notre Dame: past that, schools like Harvard are on a different level of comparison.
If Oxford doesn’t have the money, can it still keep up the quality of teaching? Many believe that the plethora of incredible academics at the university can make up for its sad state of finances. Not long ago, Faiz Siddiqui made nationwide news by suing Oxford for the sum of one million pounds, on account of “appallingly bad” teaching during the course of his degree, which he argued prevented him from having a successful career.
Not one, not two, but half of the teaching staff on Siddiqui’s module were on leave. The University knew of the situation ahead of time, and made no extra accommodations for Siddiqui. These problems were reflected in lower results for all of the students in Siddiqui’s year.
Commentary continues on the quality of teaching at Oxford, from Giles Coren to T.S. Eliot, who once said “Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead”. The lecturers too, largely continue to be academics. This is not always the case at other top universities.
JB Straubel, who lectures on energy storage integration at Stanford, is the Chief Technical Officer of Tesla. Oxford could do with having teachers who are not used to the mechanic nature of University academics, but rather people who have made a real mark on the industries that academics often love to produce commentary about. Oxford, of course, justifies this by arguing that students are supposed to do most of their studying in their own time.
Then there’s the story of Alistair Herron, the student with seven A*s in his A-level who was accepted by Harvard and Stanford, but rejected by Oxford. In the United States, this kind of story is actually commonplace, where universities seek to fill their class with a diverse set of students, and as a result, have specific wants (athletes, students from more disadvantaged backgrounds, etcetera).
But for Oxford, who is markedly behind the rest of the world in terms of their refusal to enlist positive discrimination practices (even Chinese universities practice affirmative action), their justification for such stubbornness is apparently a desire to keep the admissions process as meritocratic as possible. Unless Alistair swore at his tutors during the interview, I can hardly see a shred of consistency in that narrative.
So perhaps this has something to do with the way Oxford is built from the ground up. Oxford’s entrance policies are a catastrophic failure. In Malcolm Gladwell’s aptly titled David and Goliath, he writes about how many of the universities most successful in creating amazing graduating classes, like Harvard, target high achieving low income students.
This not only contributes to creating a more diverse community, but also fills these universities with students who are more likely to appreciate and make of the time that they have been given. Financial aid packages bring in students who display incredible gratitude and are likely to work harder and more efficiently at university: at Oxford, financial aid is doled out like we are living in a famine.
Oxford does not actively search to recruit underdogs—it never has. It has, instead, opted to create a racial monolith, with about as much global perspective as a migrating flock of seagulls. As a result, the university produces, year after year, classes of students who are unable to think globally, who are restricted to old works and Eurocentric sets of authors, and even a sadly ironic progressive sect of students who are unable to think intersectionally.
Thus, the ‘dinner party elite’, as Owen Jones calls it, is created and fed into, repeatedly. On our terms, when looking at Oxford economically, this is disastrous in a modern world. The ability to speak foreign languages, and to genuinely understand and be able to communicate with people of other ethnicities and cultures is crucial. In forming lasting business relationships, connections, and friendships on a global scale, Oxford students are ill prepared.
In a passage of Merchant, Soldier, Sage by David Priestland, the author, a history fellow at St. Edmund Hall, talks about how the education of Oxford has always been designed to train an elite, for careers in public service at home and in the empire. He writes about how many tutors, sitting in tweed suits, would give hour-long ‘tutorials’ on an impossibly wide range of subjects contained within the degree, where mastery and communication of knowledge was not the real priority, but rather the development of the confidence and writing skills of tutors to leave ample time for ‘gentlemanly pursuits’.
To some, his description might sound eerily familiar. In a lot of respects, things at Oxford have not changed. In hoping that a model that once worked would continue to work, the rigidity of the administration has led to a refusal to accept positive discrimination practices on the refusal to ‘lower standards’. To that, I ask, what standards? In a world where the ruling elite are no longer provincial gentry, but guys wearing hoodies and jeans building billion dollar empires with their minds, rather than with extractive colonial institutions, Oxford desperately needs to adapt.
I have declined to write extensively about what I love about Oxford, among which include things like the endless number of vibrant student societies, the incredible people that would be incredible regardless of their status as an Oxonian, the Oxford Launchpad.
Sunny days as rare as they come, my brilliant politics and philosophy tutors, the student who sits every Sunday in the Social Science library across from me and works on her problem sheets until her third finger bruises purple, the Olives sandwich shop, and so on.
So, before I face the waves of diehard screeching bearing semblance to Tories yelling at immigrants to integrate or leave, I would like to note that there is indeed much to be appreciated in the pulsating intellectual community that is Oxford University.
In addition, Oxford is no Greenlight Capital and I’m not David Einhorn—all is far from being lost, and I don’t intend on preaching that kind of message. But when it comes to the market, there are two ways you can go.
You can ride the bull, or you can face the bear. Justine Greening has talked a lot about reforming higher education. That might provide a little bump for the bulls, and hope for Oxford to take it’s own initiatives at reform—but until then, unfortunately, there’s no doubt that I’d bet against Oxford.