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How local government is threatening Oxford University’s competitiveness

25 March 2014

10:30 AM

25 March 2014

10:30 AM

The press love a bit of Oxbridge competition, but Oxford is embroiled in a far older and more ruthless rivalry: town vs. gown.

It was in a dispute between the university and city of Oxford that Cambridge University has its foundations. In 1209, according to Roger of Wendover’s chronicle, an Oxford liberal arts scholar accidentally killed a woman. The Mayor led a group of townspeople to the killer’s house, only to find that he had fled – instead, they seized the three innocent scholars with whom he rented the house and hanged them. Fearing future tyranny and terrified of their fellow citizens, an exodus of Oxonians left the dreaming spires for a provincial backwater on the river Cam. 

History repeated itself in 1355. A pub fight escalated into the two-day Battle of St. Scholastica’s Day, during which local citizens took to the academic community with bows and arrows; in penance, the Mayor and Bailiffs were subsequently forced to swear an annual oath to uphold the university’s privileges.

The oath didn’t prove entirely effective, and, 659 years on, tensions still run high. The city council is still the university’s enemy-in-chief, but the battle has moved from the pub to the planning permission office.

In 2005, Oxford University came up with a plan to build 200 staff homes on the site of a disused paper mill at Wolvercote. No threat of noisy students, but the plan was still abandoned after council-related difficulties pushed costs too high.


If new university-owned accommodation isn’t an option, the only alternative is to house students in commercial projects – but the council make this problematic too. The latest town-v-gown bust-up, for example, is over a commercial plan to build accommodation for 294 students on Merton College-owned land, just behind the deer park of my college, Magdalen.

Despite this being an area long-earmarked for student accommodation, the city council decided, at a late stage in the discussion with the developer, that the plan would require a contribution towards the building of ‘affordable housing’ (as which student accommodation does not, bizarrely, qualify) – making the project, as it stood, economically unviable. Colin Cook, Oxford city council board member for development, defended the council’s controversial decision on the grounds that it wanted to ensure that there was no financial advantage to building student accommodation instead of new homes – housing in Oxford is in short supply.

It’s not just about social housing. The council also cites local residents’ fears of modern monstrosities interrupting the dreaming spires. They have a point – I frequently wonder what my college was thinking when it built the residential block in which I live. A 1960s architectural travesty born of financial expediency and soon regretted, my home is described on TripAdvisor as “disgusting”, “bleak and “appalling”.

But while I’m all for making it aesthetically pleasing, Oxford needs more accommodation. There’s pressure to accept more students, and the university has nowhere to put them: town-and-gown tensions are preventing the university from capitalising on a graduate sector which, thanks to government funding and employer expectations, is rapidly growing.

Recent shenanigans form part of the city’s broader efforts to contain the academic community. Since December 2010, the council has capped the number of students that Oxford and Oxford Brooks are allowed to have ‘living out’ in privately rented accommodation at 3,000 each. At the start of the last academic year, Brooks had 3,868 students living out – any growth at all is impossible. The student numbers cap is enforced through planning permission contracts: if either university exceeds the limit, the council’s punishment of choice is to prevent faculties from occupying new buildings that are already completed.

Council caps are already hindering the university’s expansion. Oxford’s new taught masters course in Mathematical and Theoretical Physics is a prime example. Due to start in 2015 and intended to attract students finishing three-year degrees in maths and physics at universities around the UK and the world, it will now be largely restricted to Oxford undergraduates because the student cap limits the number of outside entrants to five.

It’s an amazing way to treat the city’s principal industry. Oxford University employs 18,000 people, making it Oxfordshire’s second largest employer after the County Council. Brooks employs 2,800. Most towns would do whatever it took to see their main businesses flourish, but Oxford seems determined to smother the universities. It’s inconceivable that the city council would ever behave similarly to BMW, the Oxford plant of which employs just 8,000 people.

Unless the city council loosens its stranglehold, Oxford’s position as a world-class research institution is under threat. Oxford’s dons and financial backers might flee, as they did in 1209, for pastures new and turn a provincial backwater into a world class rival.

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Show comments
  • hdb

    Ah! Where did all the ‘conservative’ Conservatives go? We have had Carola but where is the contemporary Betjeman? It is all very well to expand, expand, expand but what of historic Oxford?

  • Tom Tom

    So you live in the Waynflete……piece of sh” not unlike The Florey Building sinking into the mud. They insist on Section 106 housing in return for student accommodation in a City where Students have votes…..funny strategy

  • sarahsmith232

    I take it The Economist has been paid for this piece of Spectator plagiarism? Since when did the Spec’ copy, word for word, an article on that weeks mag’? Shouldn’t there be a warning, you know, like – if you are paying out to subscribe to The Economist then don’t bother paying out for a separate subscription for us, ’cause you’ll already have read this in your other mag’, or something? Odd that the Spec’ has taken to copying other mag’s articles.

    • HookesLaw

      I thought I had read this somewhere else, but not the Economist.

  • HJ777

    Oxford Brookes – not “Brooks’.

    • Daniel Maris

      As in Oxford brooks at the use of its name by other lesser institutions.

      • HJ777

        Oxford is a city, not an institution.

        In any case, you can brook something but you can’t ‘brook at’ something.

  • Kitty MLB

    I hope people will actually remember this much maligned Liberal Arts Scholar,
    I have read Roger or Wendover’s Flores Historianum- but need to reminded of this poor chap,
    for heavens sake he accidently murdered this woman, and as for these unspeakable
    rabble-rousers- I am speechless, how lawless were we in 1209.

    • telemachus

      Many of us feel that it was the beginning of the end when they let ladies as undergraduates into the hallowed portals of my college
      I well remember the dreadful day when returning for a Gaudy I arrived early to find little knots of women walking the cloisters and worse entering the staircases before the terrible truth dawned
      Some of us feel that this dreadful day was only worsted by the creation in 1879 in the Woodstock Road just at the end of St Giles of a new college that eventually produced a graduate who went on to begin the ruination of England exactly 100 years later

      • Kitty MLB

        Most profound apologies from the female gender
        for wrecking life at all the male dominated educational institutions in this historic land,life has not been the same since. working class women, I assume know their places, scrubbing
        scrubbing doorsteps.
        This graduate clearly was not Ed Balls, he is too old,
        and Sillibland will never get the chance.

        • Ahobz

          He is of course talking of Margaret Hilda Roberts of blessed memory, whose vision rescued this country from the follies into which the ilk of Telemachus (son of a king is the Telemachus here claiming royal heritage? Seems an odd thing for a lefty to aspire to) had condemned the counry over the previous 15 years.

          Telemachus’ complaint is that the cure was tough medicine. What he choses not to understand is that allowed to continue the disease would have been much worse. See, for instance., Greece with the creditors in control.

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh I do apologise, clearly a bit slow today.
            Of course no one can stir so much anger as the exceptional
            great lady, after all they still speak of her over 30 years later,
            I cannot see that happening with the current bunch.
            Telemachus son of Odysseus and many other identities makes
            all manner of claims, and royal heritages I really struggle to keep up. You are right, Telemachus would not understand
            that if a disease is too progressive
            for a mere dose of antibiotics, surgery is required,
            the only way to stop it reoccurring.

          • HookesLaw

            Labour regularly infect the nation and then complain abiut the cure.

  • rtj1211

    The problem Oxford has is that the University is right slap bang in the middle of a small ring-road area. It has already started solving the accommodation problem for young spin out companies through the Magdelen Science Park and Begbroke amongst others. Isn’t it about time that it had new campuses outside the ring road?? Dreadfully red brick solution I know, which would place Oxford in the intolerable position of comparing part of its campus with such dreadful places as the University of Surrey!

    How can you retain the centuries old snobbery of spire-based academe if you emulate such dreadful places as MIT??

    • Colonel Mustard

      One man’s snobbery is another man’s tradition.

    • Kitty MLB

      Its not old snobbery, ‘ToffViile’, Oxford and other such cities are part of our
      culture and history.

    • HookesLaw

      Cambridge is no different. Both are little towns with big universities attached. Oxford had the disadvantage of a major car plant locating there before the war. Today where previously there were 25000 car workers there are no only 5000, but the legacy of movement of people remains. The demolition of Pressed Steel Fisher may have been a missed opportunity.

  • HookesLaw

    Is it any surprise given Oxford socialist council? And of course it is the thick student vote that helps it stay in power.
    The council in fact do not do much to help the other big industy, BMW’s MINI plant, expand either.

    Neither university or council do much to help themselves when you look at the monstrosity of accomodation built overlooking Port Meadow.

    • Rhoda Klapp8

      Hooky speaks truth. The council hates cars despite having a car factory, why shouldn’t it go out of its way to hurt the uni too.

      • Tom Tom

        Oxford Council has a lousy road system but has always been a problem, though it employs quite a few Oxonians like its Director of Social Services

  • CharlietheChump

    Take the hint and move.

    • In2minds

      What a good idea, Ebbsfleet Uni, it would be ideal!