The Oxford brand guaranteed this scandal would resonate. Two officials of Pembroke College, one of Oxford's 39 constituent colleges, had to quit last week in disgrace when it emerged they were willing to admit a bright but not stellar boy whose father was offering to contribute $420,000. Unfortunately for them, the "father" was a reporter for the Sunday Times. Pembroke and Oxford swiftly repudiated their supposedly wayward officials. All Britain united in condemning the sale of university places. And who could disagree? In modern meritocracies, state-funded universities are supposed to be incubators of talent, not whorehouses for the already privileged. All the same, I find myself squirming at the neatness of this morality tale.
Its main villain is unconvincing. The college chaplain and former admissions tutor who told the reporter his money would talk, Rev. John Platt, is described by former students as devoted to their welfare and assiduous in touring state schools to encourage applications from bright kids without money. He wasn't seeking a bribe for himself, but worrying about Pembroke which he cheerfully described as "poor as shit."
Education is noble, but a business too. World-class universities must compete in a world market for top-flight professors, research grants and funds to build labs and support needy students. Oxford and Cambridge have huge advantages over less famous universities (Britain now has almost 100), but with the country spending a smaller portion of its GDP on universities than 20 years ago, they too must struggle. Compared to American universities in particular, which the British government frequently extols, they are poor and getting relatively poorer. Harvard professors earn 70% more, on average, than their Cambridge counterparts. All U.K. universities put together were able to harvest $414 million from their investments in 2000; the comparable figure for Yale alone this year is $405 million. Oxford is proud that its spinoff companies are collectively worth about $3 billion; graduates of M.I.T., according to a 1997 study, had founded over 4,000 companies that in 1994 alone had revenues of $232 billion. And because Oxford remains a peculiarly federal institution, some colleges have vast holdings while others like Pembroke scrape by.
Where else could Rev. Platt's colleagues scare up a few bucks? Not from the government: for the first time it is now asking students to pay some of their tuition and living costs, so it can free up funds not to lavish on élite schools, but to expand student numbers across the country. This year Oxford faces an after-inflation cut of .3% in its government grant. Not from increased tuition: the government won't let Oxford charge more than other universities, though many students (and their parents) would certainly pay it. Like other colleges, Pembroke already runs conferences and trawls for lucrative foreign students, whom the government requires to pay close to full freight.
What about alumni largess? Here too Oxford is playing catch-up to the U.S. With the government trying to wean many cultural and educational institutions from state funding, virtually all of them have started to hustle the same limited group of donors. But middle-class Brits are a tough sell, because tax breaks have not been as generous as in the U.S. and because they graduated when government picked up the whole tab.
My wife attended Somerville College, Oxford, 20 years ago. Then the college didn't ask its alumnae for gifts; it didn't even know who they were. There was no list. The principal decided to compile one and, to save money, gave the job to her husband, who labored part-time for several years without benefit of computer or even an electric typewriter. The university shifted to a professional fund-raising operation 15 years ago, but it is still, by American standards, feeble. Last month my wife received a phone call from a Somerville student fund raiser, a welcome innovation. But the caller seemed embarrassed to ask for $20 a month. Pembroke's last master, Robert Stevens, retired early, largely because the fund-raising burdens were exhausting him. So if Rev. Platt was willing to create an extra place for a student whose entrance exam grades were (according to his "father") two As and one B instead of three As, was that so bad if future Pembrokians would benefit to the tune of $420,000?
Especially when, as any admissions officer will admit over a drink, it is almost impossible to determine who in a pile of reasonably bright 17-year-olds will turn out to be the best student three years from now, let alone manifest the guts and creativity needed for a stellar career. British students specialize early. They win university places on the basis of three written exams graded by strangers, usually teachers on holiday with a big pile to get through. To claim that the results of this process provide some self-evidently fair and complete measure of potential to excel at university, or in life, is just silly. Many American colleges happily acknowledge that once applicants reach a certain threshold of academic ability, they blend many attributes to obtain a class: geographic and racial variety, athletic and artistic ability, whether Mom or Dad is an alum. That last criterion is not so crass as accepting a parent's proffered check, but the difference is only of degree, not kind. In 20 years or 50, loyalty is expected to breed generosity. Usually it does. Like stealing bread and sleeping under bridges, Rev. Platt's error linking the quid too closely to the quo is one much easier for the poor to make than the rich.