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.

Tags: Higher education, Housing, Local government, Oxford University, Students, Universities